Saturday, November 29, 2008

Reviewing the Obama Cabinet Picks

Having been preoccupied this past fortnight with a lot of other things, I have watched the tube and been impressed, amused and more than a bit curious.

Impressed by Obama's choices. Yeah, yeah about the "team of rivals" thing. I never read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book. I minored in history while at Ball State. I knew about Seward and all and got it all back when I read Vidal's Lincoln. What goes unmentioned in our media is this: the team of rivals is that the team did not last for both of Lincoln's terms and Lincoln did not seem to care if the team liked him. He set out to do a job and he got it done. Obama has eye more on competence than making friends. He has got a job to do and he has to do it well.

Amused by the concern that Obama will be overwhelmed by his appointments. What should have been known by now is that Obama has brass cojones. Eugene Robinson makes the point more subtlety in his The Blessing of Living in 'Interesting Times' :
"Whether you voted for Obama or not, it's hard to watch this crisply orchestrated transition and doubt that the president-elect both understands and relishes the great possibility of this moment. That doesn't mean he'll succeed, and it certainly doesn't mean he won't make mistakes. It means he has big ideas and big plans -- right or wrong -- and I think most people know intuitively that this is no time for small."
Roger Cohen at the New York Times also more gracefully makes the point in his A Command of the Law:
Before I get to why, allow me to add two other reasons for thankfulness. The first is that Barack Obama is a man of sufficient self-confidence to entrust the critical job of secretary of state to his former rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has the strength and focus to produce results.

The second is that he’s a man of sufficient good sense to retain the remarkable Robert Gates as defense secretary.
We have had eight years of smallness, this will be a real change. Maybe we will finally see the limits reached of Obama's intelligence and cunning (yes, that sweet smile has a cunning mind behind it). I am just not willing to bet against him.

This is from David Brooks in The New York Times:

As a result, the team he has announced so far is more impressive than any other in recent memory. One may not agree with them on everything or even most things, but a few things are indisputably true.

First, these are open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence. Orszag, who will probably be budget director, is trusted by Republicans and Democrats for his honest presentation of the facts.

Second, they are admired professionals. Conservative legal experts have a high regard for the probable attorney general, Eric Holder, despite the business over the Marc Rich pardon.

Third, they are not excessively partisan. Obama signaled that he means to live up to his postpartisan rhetoric by letting Joe Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship.

Fourth, they are not ideological. The economic advisers, Furman and Goolsbee, are moderate and thoughtful Democrats. Hillary Clinton at State is problematic, mostly because nobody has a role for her husband. But, as she has demonstrated in the Senate, her foreign-policy views are hardheaded and pragmatic. (It would be great to see her set of interests complemented by Samantha Power’s set of interests at the U.N.)

Finally, there are many people on this team with practical creativity. Any think tanker can come up with broad doctrines, but it is rare to find people who can give the president a list of concrete steps he can do day by day to advance American interests. Dennis Ross, who advised Obama during the campaign, is the best I’ve ever seen at this, but Rahm Emanuel also has this capacity, as does Craig and legislative liaison Phil Schiliro.

David Broder in A Good Time for a Smart President added:

"The appointments he has made to his economic team have been impressive, and the response to them has been almost uniformly positive from Capitol Hill to Wall Street. But it is not just the incoming White House and Cabinet people who have been reassuring; it has been Obama himself.

As well as he handled himself during the long campaign, he has been equally sure-footed in the transition. And behind the smooth public performance is a mind that seems able to stretch to encompass even the most complex of policy choices."

Curious as to whether this is how it was when FDR and JFK were coming into office? Curious as to what is going on in the background? Regardless of how we try to define and pigeonhole Obama, he escapes those traps. He remains himself. That he has ideas, that he has a plan, we all know. We jsut seem to hear what we want to hear and not what all he says. As with the election campaigns, his opponents criticized him only as a speech maker but ignored while he was talking there was a huge campaign machine being built. I suspect the hullabaloo about appointments and their leaks (Rachel Maddow had a particular interest in this subject) obscures some serious work going on in the background. I bet legislation is being drafted right now, plans being put into place, and that is not being leaked. Obama backs up all his fine talk unlike our current President. (See Bush Grants His Final Presidential Turkey Pardon)

Not everyone thinks this is the change that Obama talked about. E.J. Dionne hit on this in his Obama's Realist Worldview Recalls George H.W. Bush:

"What's most striking about Obama's approach to foreign policy is that he is less an idealist than a realist who would advance American interests by diplomacy, by working to improve the country's image abroad, and by using military force prudently and cautiously.

***

The truth about Obama's worldview was hidden in plain sight in his most politically consequential foreign policy speech. Antiwar Democrats cheered Obama for addressing a rally against the Iraq war in Chicago's Federal Plaza on Oct. 2, 2002. His opposition to the war was a major asset in his nomination struggle with Clinton.
***

Obama did indeed denounce the impending war as 'dumb,' 'rash' and 'based not on reason but on passion.' But in retrospect, the speech may be most notable for other things Obama said that separated him from some in his antiwar audience."

The thrust of his argument against the Iraq invasion was a classic realist's critique of a war he denounced as "ideological." It would, he said, "require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." It also would "fan the flames of the Middle East" and "strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda."

***

Ironically, Obama is likely to show more fidelity to George H.W. Bush's approach to foreign affairs than did the former president's own son. That's change, maybe even change we can believe in, but it's not the change so many expected.

I think Dionne, as usual, hits the mark. Obama told us what he thought but we ignored what we wanted to ignore. Anyone who thought Obama was about waving the white flag of surrender got exactly what they deserved on Election Day. Anyone who thinks Obama was a peacenik at all costs was and is an idiot. (I have been trying to think when was the last time we had a peace at all costs President - Hoover, Coolidge, Harding?) That he is not a bull in a china shop trying to prove his manliness at the expense of our country is as obvious as the opposite was obvious about George W. Bush.

Kathleen Parker also wrote about Obama and change in her Barack Obama Embodies Change:
"Speaking recently at the Ethics and Public Policy Center about public diplomacy, Gedmin pointed out that George Bush's 'bring 'em on' cowboy style worked for about half the American people and about 5 percent of the globe. By comparison, he said, Obama's style resonates with about 90 percent of the world.

Both Gedmin and fellow speaker Kenneth Pollack -- a Persian Gulf expert and author of 'A Path Out of the Desert' -- agreed that the messenger, as well as the message, matters. How successfully the United States communicates its interests to the rest of the world turns in part on who is delivering the information and how the 'sale' is pitched.

'Sale' gets quotation marks because, says Pollack, we need to stop thinking in terms of selling and advertising. Rather, the best marketing tool for 'selling' liberal democratic values (much like religious conviction) is by living those values, rather than preaching or trying to impose them.

Sometimes our values and interests intersect, sometimes they don't. To the extent Obama understands that concept -- and he seems to -- he is change."
Let me finish with Leslie Savan's Obama's Trickle-Down Equanimity from The Nation. Yes, I think we are seeing this kind of effect from and of Obama. I think I am feeling it. The stock market sure is. I think in one or two paragraphs here there is a better analysis of the transition than I have heard elsewhere. Still, she asks a hard question.
"If Obama could forgive Lieberman, if he could make Hillary his secretary of state, if he can now refuse to vilify Bush, Paulson, and the entire GOP-enabled greed machine for destroying lives and the economy, then surely I could let my anger over petty slights melt away.

Not that it isn't in Obama's realpolitick interest to forgive Lieberman (who's now Joe the Beholden), to remove Hillary from the Senate, where she could have stymied his agenda, or in general to kill the Republicans with love. But he is the greatest global advertisement for the Zen-like detachment needed to see both the large picture and the smallness of the immediate gripe."

***

But try this for embarrassing: For the last eight years, I've more than occasionally given up on slightly difficult tasks, blithely run up my credit card debts, knowingly thrown logic to the side, and didn't bother to talk so good, all the time telling myself, If Bush got to be president by being an incompetent, no-good wastrel, then surely I could loosen a standard or two or three.

Every president's character helps define the parameters of what you can and cannot get away with. They're not exactly role models (that's more a job for baseball players), but they patrol social mores like shepherding moons, keeping us all in our proper rings. As long as they're on TV a lot and the media magnify their every word and deed, our leaders inevitably take up four- or eight-year occupations of the mytho-religious space in our brains that links private behavior to public values.

***

And have we ever seen anyone wield history as a shepherd's crook better than Barack Obama? The invocations of Abe Lincoln (senator from Illinois, Team of Rivals, even the better angels of our nature urged upon us by an emancipating ectomorph, etc.) have been masterful, like a sermon given from the mount where that shining city on a hill ought to be. Jesse, John McCain, maybe even Bush himself have been ever so subtly herded this past year out the door of history. Obama has grabbed us all by our hearts and minds.

Do we have the, uh, guts to follow?
I think the answer is we must.

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