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The Boston Globe

Obama Answers Liberal Critics on Personnel Choices

Joseph Williams

US President-elect Barack Obama speaks as he presents his choices for his newly formed Economic Recovery Advisory Board during a news conference in Chicago November 26, 2008. Paul Volcker (L), 81, will be the chair of the panel and Austan Goolsbee (not pictured) will serve as its staff director. (Jeff Haynes - UNITED STATES/Reuters)

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack Obama, rejecting liberals'
criticism of his emerging cabinet, today strongly defended his decision
to choose more experienced, centrist aides for his inner circle,
arguing that the nation needs sure hands in a time of turmoil -- and
that it's his job to bring the change he promised voters.

At a press conference to introduce his economic advisory board,
Obama said it would send the wrong message to the nation if he stocked
his cabinet with newcomers, especially given the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan and the deepening economic crisis. Veterans, he said, bring
the wisdom to help him shape his agenda and the know-how to execute it.

"What we are going to do is combine experience with fresh thinking,"
he said in his most detailed comments on the issue. "But I understand
where the vision for change comes from. First and foremost, it comes
from me. That's my job -- to provide a vision in terms of where we are
going, and to make sure then that my team is implementing."

Seeking to reassure supporters worried that he's "recycling"
appointees from President Clinton's era, Obama suggested it is
unrealistic to expect him to bypass the best people available simply
because of ties to the last Democratic administration.

However, liberal activists contend that Obama so far has gone too
far in one direction, bringing in too many of the same Washington
insiders and undermining his own message of change. Obama, they
complain, hasn't given a top cabinet job to a true liberal, and grumble
about the expected appointments of rival Hillary Clinton -- a centrist
Democrat -- as Obama's secretary of state and of Robert M. Gates, a
Republican appointed by President Bush, to stay on as defense secretary
for at least a year.

"I'm not in the camp that says, 'Give him a chance, because his
vision will dominate,' " said Tom Hayden cq, a high-profile liberal and
antiwar activist who said he supports Obama despite misgivings over his
cabinet picks. "I don't know what he's doing. This is not governing
from the center. This is governing from the past."

Liberal bloggers, who helped fuel Obama's grassroots fund-raising
and volunteer armies, are particularly vocal in their critique of
Obama's choices so far.


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Some of them argue that competence and experience aren't substitutes
for the right ideology. "How can selecting only pro-war Cabinet members
and advisers be justified on the grounds of 'competence' -- as though
one's support for the War has nothing to do with competence?" asks
blogger Glenn Greenwald, who also writes for the online journal Salon.

Since he was elected three weeks ago, Obama has tapped several
people who worked for President Clinton, including Rahm Emanuel as his
chief of staff and Lawrence Summers as his senior economic adviser.
Reports say that the president-elect has settled on at least two other
Clinton-era officials -- Eric Holder for attorney general and New
Mexico Governor Bill Richardson for commerce secretary.

Criticism of Obama's personnel picks, however, intensified when word
leaked out that he will select Clinton as secretary of state. Antiwar
activists decried her vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which
Obama hammered her about during the Democratic primaries. And after
reports Tuesday that Obama would keep Gates at the Pentagon, some
suggested it could mean Obama was reconsidering a campaign pledge to
withdraw US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

But Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia,
warned against drawing premature conclusions about any shifts in
position. "Let's wait and see the identity of the entire team," he said
in an interview.

Liberals who are most upset by the cabinet picks may have had
unrealistic expectations about what an Obama presidency would look
like, he said, especially "the ones who have been there from the

Obama, Sabato said, "is also trying to be pragmatic under very
difficult circumstances. Frankly, I never believed he was a
superliberal. He's got to do what he thinks is right. Everyone needs to
keep in mind that he's inheriting a bloody disaster."

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