Base Alienation: Obama's Team of Rivals
Obama's Team of Rivals
By GARY LEUPP
With surprising haste and insensitivity, Barack Obama’s alienating the most serious, activist component of his political base. The blogosphere’s been seething in indignation for weeks. Chris Bowers, of the OpenLeft.com blog, calls Obama’s cabinet “a center-right foreign policy team” and pronounces himself “incredibly frustrated. Progressives are being entirely left out of Obama’s major appointments so far. . . Even after two landslide elections in a row, are our only governing options as a nation either all right-wing Republicans, or a centrist mixture of Democrats and Republicans? Isn’t there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration?” Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos site, calls the Obama team “tone deaf” to the views of “the American electorate that voted in overwhelming numbers for change from the discredited Bush policies.”
The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, protesting the retention of Robert Gates as Obama’s Secretary of Defense, writes, “Maybe being right about the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history doesn’t mean much inside the Beltway? How else to explain that not a single top member of Obama’s foreign policy/national security team opposed the war---or the dubious claims leading up to it?” “I don’t know what he’s doing,” says Tom Hayden. “This is not governing from the center. This is governing from the past.” Historian Paul Street observes: “It bothers a growing number of Obama’s liberal backers to learn that, as Wall Street Journal editorial board member Matthew Kaminski notes, ‘the Obama camp says the future president, who won running from the left, intends to govern from the center’ (WSJ, December 6/7, 2008, A8).”
A lot of liberal Democrats---people who believe in the system (although maybe less so day by day, since it isn’t being very good to them)---are echoing the complaint from David Corn of Mother Jones: “This Wasn’t Quite the Change We Pictured.” Perhaps they feel, to put it in Marxian terms, that he exploited their labor power during the election campaign, and now for all their efforts on his behalf he’s slapping them in the face.
It should be plain to everyone that the inexperienced junior senator from Illinois defeated his heavily favored rival Hillary Clinton in the primaries for one principal reason: she’d voted for the war on Iraq in 2002 while he, still in the Illinois state legislature, opposed it. His victory over McCain surely owes much to the economic crisis, which eclipsed the war as voters’ primary concern; still, it’s safe to say that Obama owes his presidency to the antiwar voter.
This is not to say that Obama was ever a consistent or eloquent spokesman for the antiwar movement; on the contrary. He called the invasion of Iraq “dumb,” “rash,” “a strategic blunder”---language lacking both analytical clarity and moral outrage. He’s always called for a “responsible” (as opposed to immediate) withdrawal, his latest proposal involving a flexible timeline of sixteen months. Meanwhile since mid-2007 he’s been agitating for at least two more divisions to be sent into Afghanistan, which he sees as the true center of the “war on terror,” and he’s called for strikes into Pakistan such as have indeed become routine in recent months under the Bush administration. In his June 2008 speech before AIPAC Obama, like Bush, declared that no options should be left off the table in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, which he assumes (contrary to the November 2007 NIE) is a military program. In that same AIPAC presentation he called the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization,” thereby aligning himself with those who voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Act (for which he’d been absent and actually described as “saber-rattling”). He has, in short, proven himself quite hawkish, and those fancying him the “antiwar candidate” have been naïve. There having been no antiwar candidate, those believing in the system had to invent one in order to vote for one.
During his debate with Clinton on January 31, Obama declared, “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place. That’s the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next president of the United States. That’s what I intend to provide.” But maybe what we’re seeing is a war within Obama’s own mindset. Not a war, mind you, about whether or not to champion U.S. imperialism; if he had doubts about that he wouldn’t be a U.S. politician, or at least a highly successful one attracting the money and endorsements that he has. He is plainly a creature of U.S. capitalism and seeks to enhance its geopolitical advantages; that is a big part of his job description. The question is, will he encourage a different mindset through some bold center-left or at least innovative appointments to the remaining slots (there’s been some buzz about a gay Secretary of the Navy, for example), through some firm steps to expose and punish the crimes of the Bush administration, through a rapid withdrawal from Iraq overriding his commanders’ advice, through diplomatic engagement with Iran, etc.? Or will all the talk of change boil down to the mere fact of an African-American in the White House?
Obama’s staff and cabinet picks suggest a deep desire for acceptance by the existing power structure. It’s as though he’s bending over backwards to disabuse anyone of those nasty campaign rumors that he’s a cypto-Muslim, Arabophiliac, quasi-socialist or closet Marxist. It’s as though he’s actively soliciting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from Joe Lieberman, Karl Rove, Henry Kissinger, Lindsay Graham, Michael Goldfarb, Richard Perle and the other extreme reactionaries expressing their delight at his cabinet choices, and viewing such support as recognition of his own special gift as a healer and uniter. But how can he possibly expect to unite his antiwar base with his rightwing foreign policy team?
I wonder if there might be a dangerous narcissism here. Obama’s staff has hinted at his political strategy for explaining his remarkable metamorphosis from the First Black President to the First Center-Right Black President. He’s a second Lincoln, like that greatest of U.S. presidents, leading the nation out of a period of terrible division and crisis. Hence his leadership, like that of that valiant Republican from Illinois, must transcend petty rivalries.
Here’s where a book by a popular historian happens to come in handy. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Brilliance of Abraham Lincoln seems almost designed to confer legitimacy on Obama’s betrayal of his most ardent supporters’ expectations. Published in 2005, it had caught Obama’s attention during the campaign. He told Meet the Press’s Tim Russert in May 2008, “Awhile back there was a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called Team of Rivals, in which she talked about how Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was how can we get this country through this time of crisis? And I think that has to be the approach that one takes.” The book has actually been criticized for being a simplistic, tendentious treatment of Lincoln’s decisions and their impact on the fate of the union, but the academic point is irrelevant here. Politically, it’s very useful to place Obama in this mold, and to represent the protests of the lefties as petty and “divisive.”