During the Democratic primaries, whenever individuals who worked in the Clinton administration announced their support for Obama, the media and Obama supporters would gleefully report their endorsements. Now, as Obama has turned almost exclusively to Clinton-era professionals to complete his staff, the media's reaction has turned less jovial. Some progressives, in fact, feel betrayed by Obama's cabinet choices. Their reaction is justifiable in many ways, but it is also politically immature to some extent.
It is hardly novel for presidents to turn to prior administrations to pick advisers. Experience in Washington is just as valuable for politicians as experience practicing medicine is helpful for doctors. Standing alone, Obama's cabinet choices should not trigger any criticism simply because they worked for Bill Clinton.
But Obama's Campaign Demonized Career Washingtonians
During the primaries, however, many of Obama's most ardent supporters, including his own promoters, depicted him as a "Washington outsider." Furthermore, Obama gained tactical advantages when he denounced his rivals as Washington politicians. For example, when Clinton and McCain proposed a "gas tax holiday," Obama described the idea as a "gimmick" and derided his opponents as "Washington candidates." Unlike Clinton and McCain, Obama offered a better answer for voters (even though he did not outline a plan to reduce short-term fuel prices) because he was not a part of the Washington establishment. Instead, he only wanted to become its most powerful leader.
Obama's Cabinet Not Ideologically Left
Obama's picks also raise eyebrows because they do not mesh with the wildly enthusiastic praise that progressives gave his candidacy. Obama won overwhelming support from MoveOn, Daily Kos, HuffingtonPost, National Journal, and their followers. Progressives viewed Obama as being in the flock; Clinton, on the other hand, was a conservative in liberal attire (at least until Obama defeated her, and re-casting her as a liberal could help persuade/shame PUMAs to vote for him).
Obama himself often lumped Clinton-era policy with Bush's failed administration. For example, Obama said that working class people cling to guns, religion, homophobia, and xenophobia because "they fell through the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration. . . ." Compared with Obama, Bush and both Clintons were simply more of the same. Obama, by contrast, offered a progressive voice that would create fundamental change for working-class Americans.
The leftist depiction of Obama became most pronounced in the area of foreign affairs. Obama grabbed attention during the primaries by running as an anti-war candidate. Although the economy ultimately mattered more to voters in the general election, during the primaries, Obama's opposition to the war gave him a tremendous amount of credibility among progressives. The Left contrasted Obama (a dove) from Clinton, whom they described as a dangerous hawk.
Guy Saperstein (a former president of the Sierra Club) wrote a polemical essay for AlterNet that typifies progressive disagreement with Clinton in the context of foreign policy. Saperstein characterizes Clinton as "one of the most hawkish of Democrats" in the Senate. He also accuses her foreign policy advisors of being equally enthusiastic about militarism. By contrast, Saperstein argues that Obama's speech opposing the war (prior to his run for the Senate) makes him a "case study of good judgment trumping a resume." Based on his comparison of the candidates, Saperstein concludes that: "For those voters who want American foreign policy to continue to trend in the direction of muscularity and intervention, they have their candidate -- Hillary Clinton. For those who want change in American foreign policy, who think American militarism and interventionism need to be scaled back, Obama, and his foreign policy advisors, appear ready to begin those changes." Well, now it appears that a hawk will promulgate foreign policy for the next four years.
Obama also assailed Clinton on foreign policy, making arguments that resemble those that Saperstein advances. Obama argued, for example, that even if Clinton has experience, her vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq shows that she lacks judgment. Today, Clinton's suddenly-good judgment makes her the leading candidate to serve as the nation's highest diplomat. Now that's change! I wonder if this is what Saperstein had in mind with his endorsement.
Experience Actually Matters
A final area in which Obama's personnel choices deviate from his campaign message surrounds the issue of "experience." Obama's remarkable ability to rebut Clinton's experience narrative impressed me during the primaries. Obama blunted the experience argument by turning the issue into one of judgment. Even if Clinton has more "experience" (which she might not actually have), it does not mean much if she also lacks judgment (demonstrated, for example, by her vote in favor of the Iraq War).
Many progressives and liberals embraced the judgment-over-experience argument (see Saperstein's essay). Others, however, discounted experience altogether. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne used his weekly column to espouse liberal and progressive perspectives on Obama. In one column, Dionne rejects Clinton's arguments that experience and knowledge concerning policy matter more than messages of "hope" and "change." Dionne concedes that"[i]f we chose a president by examination rather than election, [Clinton] would win . . . .But voters right now are not thinking about intricate puzzles." Dionne asserts that "[t]ransformation is not about policy details but about altering the political and social calculus."
Well, apparently, Obama does not see things this way. In picking members of his cabinet and high-level staff, Obama has selected candidates with long and deep resumes in Washington and who have a high degree of knowledge concerning public policy. Experience and knowledge now drive his message more than "change" and "hope." Even writers for the Obama-endorsing San Francisco Chronicle have reported on the contradictions between Obama's staff and his campaign rhetoric. A recent article in the paper observes that: "[T]he Obama administration is shaping up as a collection of experienced and powerful Washington hands. It is a far cry from the change mantra of Obama's campaign, during which he routinely attacked Washington as a captive of old politics and special interests."
Although I have chosen to highlight the differences between Obama's campaign rhetoric and his personnel choices, I do not disagree with his decision to hire experienced, Clinton-era politicos or even ideological moderates. In fact, I always suspected Obama would do this, and all of the individuals he has selected have already demonstrated that they are talented and capable. Moreover, experience has always been relevant in picking a president, and, contrary to anti-Clinton campaign rhetoric, there are stark differences between the Clinton and Bush administrations. Obama's decision to hire many Clinton-era politicians, especially Hillary Clinton, vindicates the idea that experience matters, and it also helps legitimize the Clinton administration for younger Democrats who often fell for the assertion that Bush and the Clintons are indistinguishable.
Even though I do not have a problem with Obama's cabinet picks or his policies, I continue to focus on the issues discussed on this blog because, as an educator, I feel compelled to use the election as a "teaching moment" for demonstrating the problems that can occur when seasoned political commentators, voters, and analysts uncritically accept campaign rhetoric. I also want younger voters, who may have participated in politics for the first time, to realize that even candidates they passionately support can and will behave like politicians. They need to do this in order to win and get re-elected. In other words, I write to teach. That's my mission. And my teaching is nonpartisan. I hope you enjoy it!
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