Notwithstanding the profoundly optimistic frame of mind in which I find myself during this historic week, there are a few reasons to be pessimistic -- or at least worried -- about the direction that the country might take under the Obama administration. To this point, of course, most of what we have to go on are the new president's decisions about whom to appointment to his cabinet, along with a few symbolic choices and some (very good) moves on his first day in office. Based on what we know so far, there is unfortunately reason to worry about how things might play out. While I am optimistic that President Obama's efforts to be inclusive will often bear fruit, I feel at least a tinge of pessimism that he will allow himself to be dragged into positions that will do neither the country nor Obama himself any good.
The fundamental worry to me has been best articulated by Maureen Dowd, who asked (in a column on Sunday that was otherwise a brilliant analysis of George W. Bush's many fatal flaws) whether "Obama [is] neurotically reluctant to make enemies, and overly concerned with winning over those who have smacked him, from Hillary and Bill to conservative columnists." This was, in fact, precisely the problem with Bill Clinton's presidency, with his obvious need to win people over and his willingness not only to sell out his own party on policy but to publicly trash his colleagues as "old Democrats" who were out of touch with the real America. (Even the usual description of Clinton's strategy as "triangulation" fails to capture his real strategy, since he usually gave up almost all of the territory to his conservative critics rather than finding some kind of new dimension within which to find "middle" ground.)
This is why I was (and am) so worried (see here, here, and here) about the Rick Warren controversy, since it sent the very worrying signal that Obama might be another Bill Clinton, who talked left and governed right in a (futile) attempt to get the Right to like him. To this point, as I describe below, there is enough evidence that Obama is a capitulator to keep me awake at night. It is great, of course, to have a president who does not view it as evidence of righteousness that people disagree with him. There is a long distance between those two poles, however.
Cabinet-level appontments, to be sure, are their own species of symbolism. While cabinet secretaries have a great deal of independent power, it is at least plausible that each of these people will do what Obama wants and not what they would prefer to do on their own. Still, these people are not automatons, and they will ultimately make decisions that matter a lot more than, say, the invocation during Tuesday's inauguration festivities. With that in mind, it is worth thinking about the major cabinet appointments of the new administration, looking for evidence of any Obaman tendency toward preemptive capitulation.
Foreign Policy: One of the biggest surprises of the transition, at least for me, was Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton to be the Secretary of State. Clinton steadfastly refused during the presidential primaries last year to repudiate her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq, making her an odd choice for a president who differed so profoundly on that issue. Honestly, though, I was never especially upset by Obama's choice of Clinton for the same reason that I did not support Clinton for president: I do not believe that she has any core beliefs. Saturday Night Live captured it best when they had their Hillary Clinton impersonator say, in response to a question about whether revelations of the cooked intelligence changed her mind about her vote: "If I had known then that I could vote against the Iraq war and still be a viable presidential candidate, I would have voted differently."
In short, I am worried more about Clinton simply being unpredictably opportunistic than being too much of a hawk. Obama's decision to put her in such an important position tells me that he is willing to be a political player, which should not be a surprise to anyone. While I do not understand why everyone was so sure that Clinton is "eminently qualified" for the position, she was certainly not clearly unqualified. While this pick gives us some reason to worry, it is not high on my list.
Justice: One of the biggest messes in Washington has to be the Justice Department. Choosing Eric Holder was a very good decision on many grounds, even though I believe that his role in the Marc Rich pardon under Bill Clinton was pretty unsavory. Holder actually has experience in positions that make him a very good choice to bring professionalism back to the upper echelons of the department. Today's announcement that Neal Katyal will be a deputy solicitor general is also good news. At Justice, though, the biggest improvement will simply be that people like Monica Goodling are not filling the slots that are out of the spotlight.
The Economy: I recently described my skepticism about the centrism (or, more accurately, the neoliberalism) of the Obama economics team. These doubts were confirmed last week after the mini-scandal broke about Secretary of the Treasury-designate Timothy Geithner's unpaid taxes, when the Washington Post quoted a "senior Senate Republican aide" as saying that Geithner is "about as conservative a nominee as you could hope for in that position, so people are hesitant to blow the guy up." Indeed.
The biggest concern is that Obama's economists will be too timid, both in deciding upon the size and composition of the current and (probably) subsequent stimulus packages and in fixing the botched bailout of the banks. Deep down, the Rubin boys really are friends of the big-institution financiers, believing both ex ante and ex post in the fundamental wisdom of the deregulatory agenda initiated under Bill Clinton and continued under George Bush. I do suspect that they are pragmatic enough to be much better at handling the crisis than Bush's economists were or McCain's economists would have been, but that is not saying a lot. If Summers et al. blow the opportunity to end the recession before it becomes a depression, moreover, the failure will be laid at the feet of liberals, even though there are no liberals in charge of economic policy.
Those are a lot of doubts, to be sure. Even so, for now optimism is winning over pessimism in the battle for my heart and mind. Obama's bad moves thus far need not portend Clintonian capitulation to the Right, for we can hope that Obama is much less psychologically needy than Clinton when it comes to winning over his opponents. As I have argued before, the most important thing for Obama's supporters to do is to let him know that their support is not unconditional. No one should expect the moon and stars from their political leaders, but when Obama pulls away, his supporters need to make it clear that they are not just along for the ride.
-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan