The More Things Change... Is Obama Killing his Honeymoon?

With Clintonites in his Cabinet, forgiveness for Lieberman, and creeping signs of centrism -- progressives may be on the verge of panic.

By Mike Madden


One of the first things Barack Obama did after winning the election two weeks ago was put an old-school political brawler in charge of his White House. Next, he saved Joe Lieberman. Then, he met with John McCain, and asked Hillary Clinton to run his State Department. For good measure, he's also apparently weighing whether to keep George W. Bush's Defense secretary, Robert Gates, on at the Pentagon.

Some are worried that President-elect Barack Obama is already making too many compromises.
AFP

Some are worried that President-elect Barack Obama is already making too many compromises.

This is the guy Republicans called a socialist, maybe a Marxist, and National Journal said was the most liberal member of the US Senate? McCain aides were saying on Election Night that their own polling showed 60 percent of the country thought Obama was a liberal (and many voted for him anyway). Barely two weeks into the transition, that number might already be dropping fast.

In fact, in his appointments, and in what can be divined of his foreign policy, there are loud echoes of the last Democratic administration, and also of that lady he beat in the primaries, the one the netroots didn't like very much. Certainly, some of Obama's supporters are getting a little nervous about what this all presages about an Obama White House. "The list [of disappointments] is getting awfully long," wrote the blogger bmaz at Firedoglake. "Almost as long as Barack Obama's arm that he used to take our money and efforts to get himself elected. All we have seen is the short arm he has used to punch us in the face and collect street cred with villagers for having done so." Open Left's Chris Bowers wrote on Friday that he felt "incredibly frustrated ... [W]hy isn't there a single member of Obama's cabinet who will be advising him from the left?" Even Pat Buchanan -- not exactly the world's most liberal guy -- apparently thinks Obama needs to throw a bone to progressives after the start the transition is off to.

But so far, the Obama administration is shaping up to be more or less exactly what Obama always said he was, in between the "hope" and "change" rhetoric: pragmatic, consensus-oriented and interested in getting things done. That's not necessarily what a lot of Democrats want him to be, though. Obama was bound to disappoint his supporters; think of the transition as the road map for how it's going to happen. And know that it won't come as a surprise to the president-elect himself; in 2006, in "The Audacity of Hope," he wrote that people tend to "project their own views" on him, and recognized what could happen as a result: "As such I am bound to disappoint some, if not all of them."

"This has been the pattern for him historically -- the left falls in love with him because of his eloquent oratory and his, I think, genuine sense of mission to help people who are less fortunate," said biographer David Mendell. "But he has legislated from somewhere in the middle, and then once he gets into a general election campaign, he tends to squirt that direction even farther. He'll irritate people on both sides -- except the right expects him to be a Democrat, and the far left expects him to be one of them. And he's consistently disappointed the far left."

To date, the president-elect's most notable difference of opinion with his supporters is probably on the subject of Joe Lieberman. He seems to have escaped blame for the Democratic failure to punish Lieberman last week, though Senate Democrats would certainly have been tougher on the Connecticut senator had Obama not intervened on his behalf. Harry Reid, instead, is becoming the fall guy for the slap on the wrist Lieberman received. That's either evidence of denial on the part of many Obama fans, or a sign that, among liberals, Obama has far more goodwill to burn than Reid has. Blogger and author (and Salon contributor) David Sirota blames long-standing Democratic habits and not Obama for Lieberman's escape from punishment. "The Democratic leadership [on Capitol Hill] has decided that the way it is going to govern, it is going to essentially triangulate aggressively against its own party," said. "I actually don't think Obama in his policy positions he's taken since the election -- I don't think he's actually done that. It's possible that congressional leaders are actually fearing that Obama will be far more legislatively aggressive than them."

But the big sticking point for many of Obama's intra-party critics is the strong strain of Clintonism running through appointments. They can lay the failure to banish Lieberman at Harry Reid's feet but they can't rewrite the résumés of people like Rahm Emanuel.

"You could have had an administration with a sprinkling of Clinton people, it would have been fine," said Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the American Prospect and a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a liberal think tank (and a longtime critic of Bill Clinton's centrist economic policies). "But when so many of the top people are holdovers, and he's promoting change, you have to say, wait a minute." Republicans are hoping to exploit any disconnect between Obama and his supporters -- the Republican National Committee has been sending reporters e-mail blasts of background research on each potential Cabinet pick, pointing out how many are Washington insiders with long ties to the Clinton administration or to other parts of the city's establishment.

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