Policy vs personality

December 19, 2008 at 11:12 am | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

Over at Gristmill, there’s a slighly folorn post by Sharon Astyk on Barack Obama’s selection of Tom Vilsack – the former Governor of Iowa and a man politically indebted to the entrenched interests of agribusiness – as his Secretary of Agriculture. For Astyk, this appointment follows the same dispiritingly changeless trajectory as the appointments of Hillary Clinton, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Robert Gates:

In order to be the president many of us hoped Obama would be, he would have to be willing to betray many of the people who brought him and dismiss their hopes and investments in his future. This is no easy feat for anyone, and it is probably less so for someone who came so far, so fast, with the hand of so many.

But presidents are known by the company they keep — the reality is that no man can supervise all the elements of the nation alone — they depend enormously on appointees. He will rely on reports and summaries from those he appoints, and those summaries will be given by men whose viewpoints are already formed. Vilsack cannot but describe our food system through the lens of his prior investments, and this will be disastrous.


Obama has overwhelmingly chosen one, very narrow set of viewpoints — the viewpoints of people who have power now and to whom he is already indebted for his power. I don’t claim that there is no hope for Obama, but before he chose these people to surround him, there was hope that an ordinary man of integrity, hearing a range of viewpoints, might choose something different. Now, we have to imagine that Obama is an extraordinary man, one with the power to find unconventional paths to knowledge and the willingness to override the viewpoints in which he has invested himself.

I wrote in an earlier post that it’s mistaken to interpret Obama’s cabinet as marking a break from the policy content of his campaign, and I still think that’s the case. None of the appointments he’s made necessarily conflict with his campaign promises to reinvest in the country’s infrastructure, create ‘green jobs’, start taking firmer action on regulating & reducing carbon emissions and expanding health coverage to all Americans. Nor do they conflict with his pledge to raise the minimum wage, pass the Employee Free Choice Act, close Guantanamo, stop waterboarding, become more diplomatically engaged and begin a cautious withdrawal from Iraq. What’s more, I didn’t read online progressives campaign for anything beyond these core issues, which perhaps indicates they were too narrow in their focus and too indiscriminate in their support.

Policy will be the real litmus test of the Obama administration, and if he’s too timorous in chasing EFCA, if his environmental plans are too tepid or his economic rescue plans prioritise capital at the expense of labour, then those policies will reflect badly on both the people Obama appointed, and the President himself.

That said, I don’t think it’s unfair to conclude – as Astyck does here – that these appointments place greater pressure on Obama to be the driver of change. His Defense Secretary has been on the opposite side to Obama on nuclear disarmament. His Secretary of State has been on the opposite side to Obama on Iraq, relations with Cuba and the use of cluster munitions. His economic team is full of ghosts from an era where easy credit, low wages and the abandonment of effective regulation was thought to fuel long-term prosperity. With people like this, creating an administration which is markedly different from its predecessors will require a greater resolve from the President than if he were surrounded by outsiders with new, untested ideas.

Let’s not forget that Obama hasn’t renounced one of his general election pledges yet. If he does, then his choice of advisers will take some of the blame, and that will reflect badly on the President. But until then, and as awful as ‘wait and see’ is in an opinion-thirsty blogosphere, it’s still the most sensible advice I can give.


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