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Obama's Familiar Orbit

Michael Winship

I keep thinking about that tool bag. You know -- the one that the astronaut accidentally let loose while she was repairing the International Space Station last month. Now it's in orbit, more than 200 miles above the Earth. There's even a Web site where you can track its exact location, if that's your idea of a good time. NASA figures the 30-pound bag of equipment will burn up harmlessly as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere sometime next June.

For now, it's up there, floating silently and uselessly, which, if you think of government as a sort of national toolkit for protecting and improving the lives of its citizens, could be seen as a pretty good metaphor for the last eight years. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, nothing done -- except with the kind of blunt hammers that see everything as a nail and cause more harm than good.

It's probably not for nothing that both Newsweek and Time had the word "fix" on their covers this week. We're in need of major repairs in this country, at every level. That celestial tool bag orbiting above our heads might have come in handy. Its contents include two grease guns, a scraper and a trash bag -- all things that could be useful for an incoming president seeking big changes in Washington.

But, I hear you asking, where is the change? Despite all the campaign rhetoric, so far, President-Elect Obama's announced appointments haven't exactly rattled the cages of the Beltway establishment; no one has emerged from the left, for example, who would give DC politicos a good, healthy case of the vapors.

It's consensus building, say his supporters; he's putting together a team of people with experience and know-how who can insure continuity and stability in a time of crisis. This is a process of synthesis -- the new ideas will come from him. Obama's a smart guy, they say. Not to worry -- he's got this covered.

As he himself said at his December 1 press conference, "I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made."

Maybe that's so, and it would be unfair to judge a presidency that doesn't even officially begin for another seven weeks. We all wish Barack Obama godspeed and good luck. But you'll forgive me for being a little nervous. You can call his appointments a "team of rivals," if you like -- that currently in vogue, nostalgic reference to Obama's hero Abraham Lincoln manning his cabinet with those who ran against him for the Republican nomination in 1860 -- but in truth, it seems more like a team of the same old, same old.

To work toward solving our economic crisis Obama has brought in many of the same old Clinton hands who helped us into this mess via deregulation and the wink of a blind eye to the big financial institutions -- the same ones that have either sunk beneath the waves or that we're bailing out now.

The Bush administration made the economic disaster worse, but both Barack Obama's designated Secretary of the Treasury -- Tim Geithner -- and his choice to direct the National Economic Council, Larry Summers (a former Treasury secretary), are pals of Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who left Treasury to join Citigroup, where he's now a director and senior advisor. Yes, folks, Citigroup -- the bank the government now has agreed to insure against projected losses of $306 billion -- on top of bailouts totaling $45 billion.

Same old, same old in national security and foreign policy, too -- Bob Gates, Donald Rumsfeld's replacement, stays on at the Defense Department for at least for a year; General James Jones, seasoned military man and friend of John McCain's becomes national security advisor. And, of course, there's Senator Hillary Clinton, the next Secretary of State. At Monday's press conference, President-Elect Obama was asked pointedly about their past differences:


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PETER BAKER, New York Times: ...Going back to the campaign, you were asked and talked about the qualifications of the -- your now -- your nominee for Secretary of State, and you belittled her travels around the world, equating it to having teas with foreign leaders; and your new White House counsel said that her resume was grossly exaggerated when it came to foreign policy. I'm wondering whether you could talk about the evolution of your views of her credentials since the spring.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Look, I'm in -- I think this is fun for the press, to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign.

BAKER: Your quotes, sir.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: No, I understand. And I'm -- and you're having fun. (Laughs.)

BAKER: I'm asking a question.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: But the -- and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not -- I'm not faulting it. But look, I think if you look at the statements that Hillary Clinton and I have made outside of the -- the heat of a campaign, we share a view that America has to be safe and secure and in order to do that we have to combine military power with strengthened diplomacy.

So let me get this straight -- we weren't supposed to take seriously anything that was said during "the heat of a campaign?" Doesn't that invalidate the time and effort we spent evaluating the differences between the candidates before we cast our votes? I'm just asking.

Equally disconcerting are the paeans of praise for the appointments coming from those who so bitterly opposed Obama's election just a month ago. "Reassuring," said Karl Rove. Karl Rove! "The new administration is off to a good start" -- so sayeth Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "This will be a valedictocracy," conservative David Brooks gushed in The New York Times. "Rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes."

O brave new world, that hath such people in it. Maybe it's true, as Republican campaign consultant Mark McKinnon wrote Monday, that, "The political classes have briefly sobered up and decided to act responsibly, selflessly and -- dare we say it -- in the best interest of the country. The times are simply so serious, so dangerous, so calamitous that we can't afford politics as usual."

I truly hope so, but a healthy dose of skepticism dictates that I'll believe it when I see it. Look out for tool bags, falling from the sky. And possibly a flying pig or two.

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Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

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