The Rest and the Rightest 

Obama's center-right cabinet foreshadows center-right presidency

NEW YORK—A bunch of Clinton- and Carter-era hacks. George W. Bush's leftover defense secretary. Of the dozens of Barack Obama's top appointments announced to date, there's only one liberal: David Bonior, who ran John Edwards' primary campaign, as secretary of labor. Maybe.

Remember the Democratic primaries? Among the top three presidential contenders, Edwards was the liberal. Hillary Clinton, she of repeated votes for the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq (and Iran), was to Edwards' right. Obama, who also voted for war but didn't commit to Clinton's bigger healthcare plan, was even more conservative than she. "Mr. Obama," David Sanger writes in The New York Times, "is planning to govern from the center-right of his party."

If nothing else, I had guessed, the University of Chicago egghead would appoint a team of the best and brightest. We're getting the rest and the rightest.

Asked by a reporter how his center-right coalition of Republicans, pro-war Democrats and other assorted has-beens squares with a campaign marketing hope, change and Soviet-inspired propaganda posters, Obama pledged to "combine experience with fresh thinking."

"Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost," Obama said. "It comes from me. That's my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure then that my team is implementing [that vision]." Pretty words.

Obama's argument—that his center-conservative cabinet will carry out radical change if he orders them to do so—is denied by recent history. The U.S. government, as micromanager Jimmy Carter learned, is too big for the president to manage on his own. And, as George W. Bush learned after 2000, the people you hire are more likely to change you than you are to change them.

As governor, Jacob Weisberg wrote in his book The Bush Tragedy, Bush was fondly remembered by Texas Democrats as a moderate Republican who crossed the aisle to get things done. But campaign manager Karl Rove "used his influence to steer Bush away from being the president he originally wanted to be—the kind of center-right consensus-builder he was as governor of Texas—and into a too-close alliance" with the right wing of the GOP.

Even more fateful was Bush's choice of Dick Cheney to head his vice presidential search committee. Cheney chose himself, then hijacked the would-be "compassionate conservatives'" presidency by packing it with "neoconservative ideologues, who combined hawkish American triumphalism with an obsession with Israel," as Juan Cole put it in a memorable 2005 essay for salon.com. By February 2001 Cheney had already ensured that the Bush administration would focus on international affairs to the exclusion of everything else. He also made sure that his aggressive, Manichean worldview would prevail in cabinet discussions. "Cheney had 15 military and political advisors on foreign affairs, at a time when the president's own National Security Council was being downsized," marveled Cole.

The moderate guy who ran against "nation building" in 2000 never stood a chance against his own staff.

It's possible that Obama has stronger force of will than Bush. But, so far in the 219-year history of electoral politics, there is no example of a president successfully enacting radical changes without likeminded lieutenants to carry them out. Will Obama be the first to change his cabinet's spots? Probably not.

"The last Democratic administration we had was the Clinton administration," Obama said in his attempt to calm his liberal base, which is starting to get hip to the reality that Obama is about to betray them. "So it would be surprising if I selected a treasury secretary who had had no connection with the last Democratic administration, because that would mean that the person had no experience in Washington whatsoever." Or maybe not. What about Paul Krugman, the Princeton economist and Times columnist who won the Nobel Prize this year? He's progressive. As a bonus, he's been right about everything for years.

"We want ideas from everybody," Obama continued. But not from liberals. And not from the socialists John McCain had everyone stirred up about. Speaking of McCain, the right-wing Arizona senator is tickled pink: "I certainly applaud many of the appointments that President-Elect Obama has announced," McCain said last week. "Sen. Obama has nominated some people to his economic team that we can work with, that are well-respected."

What Obama and McCain consider respectable might not pass muster with polite company. Obama's economic advisor Lawrence Summers thinks women aren't good at math or science, which bodes poorly for the quality of his own thinking. Marie Curie, call your office.

Former Bush intelligence official John Brennan was, until last week, Obama's pick to head the CIA. ABC News reported: "Brennan had been a top aide to former CIA Director George Tenet during what critics of the Bush administration refer to as that agency's descent into darkness post 9/11, and he had spoken in favor of various controversial counterterrorism strategies, including enhanced interrogation techniques and rendition—sending terror suspects to allies where torture is legal." After Congressional liberals threatened to block his nomination, Obama crossed Bush's torturer off the list.

Lefties who swooned on Election Night had might as well get used to the truth: Obama isn't one of you. Never was. Never will be.

During the 1980s, Ted Rall was a trader for Bear Stearns and a loan officer for the Industrial Bank of Japan. During the early 1990s, he was a financial analyst for a banking consulting company in San Francisco. Now he draws cartoons and writes columns for Universal Press Syndicate.

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