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Obama On The Tightrope

Thursday, December 18, 2008
As I feared, the frequency of my posts has trailed off a bit. I've been working steadily on a novel, which seems to drain away most of my writing energies. I've also deliberately disengaged as best I can from my microscopic focus on politics. But recent events deserve some commentary.

You might expect me to froth about the mouth about the Caroline Kennedy imbroglio in New York, but I'm going to disappoint you. Everyone knows how I feel about dynastic politics. I'm just glad others are beginning to notice too.

No, what I want to write about is this Richard Warren blunder. As you've probably heard, Obama has selected Warren, a faux moderate evangelical who happens to be a homophobe, to deliver the inaugural prayer. In isolation this is a mistake, but when combined with some of Obama's other recent moves, I'd say he's asking for trouble. Aside from the substance - that Warren is no friend of the Democratic Party - there's the politics. The last thing Obama should be doing is riling up the culture wars, and by putting an opponent of prop 8 in such a public position, he's going to enrage already up-in-arms gay rights activists, who will demand he do something for LBGT rights early in his term, he's doing precisely that. Not a smart move.

There has been a lot of electronic ink spilled over the lack of any real liberals among Obama's Cabinet appointees. When it was just a matter of the Secretary of State, I wasn't going to make too big a fuss, but now we're down to the last few positions, and all the major ones gone, and there isn't a single "progressive" in the bunch. Yes the White House staff are more important, and it's possible that Obama is trying to co-opt potential opposition, but here's my problem: Obama might have a good liberal agenda on domestic policy in mind, but what happens when new issues emerge, and the only advice he hears is from technocratic centrists? I'm sorry, but no one's personality is so dominant that they can surround themselves with 15 people all saying the same thing and not be influenced.

The real objection isn't on substance, though. I'm as much a technocratic centrist as a liberal, so I'm not as cranky about the choices - although I would like some more internal balance. The problem is that by assembling a Cabinet with only one wing of the party represented, Obama has done nothing to reassure his base. We need symbols too, dammit. And then comes this Warren thing, which makes those of us predisposed to trust him begin to worry, and those of us predisposed to be suspicious have real grounds to do so.

I'm sure each of these choices has made sense in isolation, but that's the problem. It appears that they've been made without concern to the broader political effect. Bringing centrists and mild conservatives into the fold makes sense, but not at the price of discouraging your own strongest supporters. He's going to need those people when the Republicans decide to stab Obama in the front, which they are certainly going to do. Maybe Obama thinks that as long as he delivers the policy goods, liberals will be content. But my question is, how different is this cabinet from the one his chief rival in the primaries would have put together? Not very, as far as I can tell.

The worst case scenario is the one David Sirota has been pushing - that Obama has been gulling liberals all along, that he's really just going to be Clinton's 3rd term. I hope that's not true, but that's certainly how things have been trending. What confuses me is why Obama would do so little to avoid that impression, unless he really is naive enough to think that he can kumbaya the Republicans and the press into supporting national health insurance and green energy.

If I sound critical, good. If Obama has the right instincts, then a little friendly criticism from his left flank will create sufficient maneuvering room to allow him to move a bit to the left. And if he doesn't have the right instincts, then the criticism will generate political pressure from those of us unwilling to be taken for granted. Either way, criticism when he's wrong is what he's going to get. And legitimizing a smiling fanatic like Warren as then new Billy Graham is just wrong.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:58 PM
  • Caroline Kennedy was in my neck of the state yesterday, talking to the mayor who is also being considered (I guess I just gave my location away...but if you have read my blog long enough, you have probably figured it out...But it doesn't matter now because I will be leaving the vampire state soon.) Anyway, the buzz in my area is that she will do exactly what Hillary did, nothing. The hope is for someone who will speak for upstate.

    Anyway, Rick Warren was a shock and a disappointment. But, it could be worse...he could have asked Rev. Wright!

    By Blogger Seeking Solace, at 4:19 PM  
  • Your critique of the cabinet misses the mark. We live in an age where who you are trumps what you believe, and Obama is trying to bring us back to the point of what you believes is more important than who you are. To wit: If Obama had truly progressive cabinet members advocating progressive policies, the policies would be dead in the water because the opposition (the Republicans and Centrist Democrats) would claim that the policy is wrong because it is advocated by "lunatics". By taking on a Centrist cabinet that bears the brand of Clinton economic success, he can produce progressive policy that is then sold by centrist politicians. In debating a policy, it doesn't matter if progressive people advocate progressive ideas. They are merely preaching to the choir. You have to get the centrists to turn progressives so that other centrists will say, "if he's advocating a policy I would normally hate, maybe I should take a second or third look instead of instinctively rejecting it."

    As for your claim that no personality is strong enough to resist unified commentary from opposing views, I believs Goodwin's book on Lincoln, "Team of Rivals", proves you wrong, especially since it is the inspiration for Obama's cabinet picks.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 7:43 PM  
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