Liberals Wonder When Obama’s Team Will Reflect Them
CHICAGO - President-elect Barack Obama's appointments have tilted so much to the political center that they have drawn praise from the likes of Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh. That alone would seem enough to set off a revolt in his liberal base. But a month into Mr. Obama's transition, many on the political left are trying to hold their tongues.
In assembling his team to date, Mr. Obama has largely passed over progressives, opting to keep President Bush's defense secretary, tapping a retired general close to Senator John McCain and recruiting economists from the traditionally corporate, free-trade, deficit-hawk wing of the party. The choices have deeply frustrated liberals who thought Mr. Obama's election signaled the rise of a new progressive era.
But so far, they are mainly muting their protest, clinging to the belief that Mr. Obama still means what he said on the campaign trail and remaining wary of undermining what they see as the most liberal president sent to the White House in a generation. They are quietly lobbying for more liberals in the next round of appointments, seeking at least some like-minded voices at the table. And they are banking on the idea that no matter whom he installs under him, Mr. Obama will be the driving force for the change they seek.
"It's a great question - one that many of us have been trying to avoid," said Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, the incoming co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, when asked last week how liberals viewed Mr. Obama's team. "The euphoria of the election is still there, and still there for me. It's not a question of benefit of the doubt. It's a question of trust, and I trust that we're going to be moving in the right direction."
As it happens, Mr. Grijalva is the focus of some of that trust. The Obama transition team has let it be known that he is under consideration for secretary of the interior, and many liberals have made that possible nomination a litmus test for whether Mr. Obama really is serious about including them in the top echelon of his government.
Others are swallowing concerns about personnel to concentrate instead on policy. Some see a New Deal for the 21st century in Mr. Obama's plans to push an economic recovery program that would devote hundreds of billions of dollars to infrastructure projects, social safety-net programs and environmentally friendly industry.
"He ran on such a progressive agenda, if he's not breaking away from that, if he's getting centrists to implement it, we'll take that," said Robert L. Borosage, president of the Institute for America's Future and once a top adviser to Jesse L. Jackson's presidential campaign.
Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential Daily Kos site on the Internet, said it was way too early to begin judging Mr. Obama. "Some people may be nit-picky about his choices but at the end of the day, he's going to make better choices than John McCain would have made," Mr. Moulitsas said by telephone. "There will be a time to push him, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm going to wait to see what it means on a policy basis, not on personalities."
Some bloggers have been less patient. "Why isn't there a single member of Obama's cabinet who will be advising him from the left?" asked Chris Bowers on his site, OpenLeft.com. Kevin Drum, writing on the Web site of the liberal magazine Mother Jones, echoed that sentiment: "I mean, that is why most of us voted for him, right?"
In an opinion article for The Washington Post on Sunday, David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, wrote that "progressives are - depending on whom you ask - disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied." But he added that "there's no rebellion yet at hand" because the left still is hoping that Mr. Obama will hijack the establishment to advance liberal causes.
Mr. Obama's loyalists have appealed for calm.
"This is not a time for the left wing of our party to draw conclusions about the cabinet and White House appointments that President-elect Obama is making," Steve Hildebrand, one of his top campaign aides, wrote on The Huffington Post in a message to progressives on Sunday. "Some believe the appointments generally aren't progressive enough. Having worked with former Senator Obama for the last two years, I can tell you, that isn't the way he thinks and it's not likely the way he will lead."
The mixed emotions on the left reflect a larger uncertainty about how to view Mr. Obama. Although National Journal deemed him the most liberal senator based on major votes and many liberals flocked to his campaign, Mr. Obama ran more on inspiration than ideology and has not always adopted the orthodoxy of the left. He proposed expanding health care coverage but does not favor a government-run single-payer system. He has criticized the Bush counterterrorism policies but voted for a compromise surveillance bill.
In the weeks since his election, Mr. Obama or his advisers have signaled that he might delay some promises that appealed to progressives, like raising taxes on the wealthy, reopening negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement and ending restrictions on gay men and lesbians in the military. While renewing his desire to withdraw combat forces from Iraq in 16 months, he has emphasized that he will listen to alternatives presented by the military.
Some liberals said they would have only themselves to blame if their expectations were not met. "So many progressives were misled about what Obama is and what he believes," Glenn Greenwald wrote in the online magazine Salon. "But it wasn't Obama who misled them. It was their own desires, their eagerness to see what they wanted to see rather than what reality offered."
At the same time, Mr. Obama arrives in office at a moment when the political dialogue has shifted to the left. Ideas that used to be considered on the fringe are now much more centrist, including heavy government spending in the short term to lift the economy and addressing energy and climate change through green technology. The debate over Iraq no longer is whether to withdraw troops but how quickly.
Even some of his appointees have evolved in their views. Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary chosen to be Mr. Obama's chief White House economic adviser, talks much more about income inequality, financial industry regulation and other favorite causes of the left. "The Larry Summers of 2008 is not the Larry Summers of 1993 or 1999," said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, a liberal magazine.
Ms. vanden Heuvel has been more critical of the national security team, to be anchored by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, with Robert M. Gates staying on as defense secretary and Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser. In her magazine, Ms. vanden Heuvel asked why those who had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, as Mr. Obama did, do not seem to have a place on the team.
Yet she said liberal activists must learn to work from the inside when possible while also pushing from the outside when necessary. "Progressives need to be as clear eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he is about us," she said in an interview last week. "It's too early to tell."
While hewing mostly to the center, Mr. Obama did heed the left in giving up on John O. Brennan, a longtime Central Intelligence Agency officer who was in line to lead the agency, after complaints about his views of interrogation programs. Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. named a liberal economist, Jared Bernstein, as an adviser last week. And Mr. Obama said on Sunday his choice for veterans affairs secretary would be Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the retired Army chief of staff who became a hero to Iraq war opponents for his public clash with top Bush administration officials over troop levels.
Having lost out in most of the top-tier positions, liberals are pushing favorites for remaining jobs: Mr. Grijalva for the Interior Department, Representative Xavier Becerra of California for United States trade representative, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts for energy secretary and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts for agriculture secretary.
"We assume that there will be a philosophical balance when we're all through with this," said Representative Lynn Woolsey of California.
Tim Carpenter, national director of Progressive Democrats of America, which was founded in 2004 out of frustration with Senator John Kerry's position on the Iraq war, said the retention of Mr. Gates was "startling" and complained that as Mr. Obama builds his team, "everybody he's bringing in is to the right of him." But he expressed cautious optimism.
"Change is in the air," Mr. Carpenter said. "The question is what kind of change. We hope Barack Obama will be a more progressive president."