Right Opinion

Obama and Peeved Progressives

Jeff Jacoby · Dec. 25, 2008

Can you hear the grumbling over in what Howard Dean used to call “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party?” The tolerance-and-diversity crowd is upset with Barack Obama; it seems the president-elect has been bringing people into his circle who don’t agree with them on every single issue.

The consternation on the left began with the naming of Obama’s national security team - Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Robert Gates to continue as secretary of defense, and retired four-star General James Jones as national security adviser. “Barack Obama’s Kettle of Hawks,” they were promptly dubbed in the Guardian by the left-wing journalist Jeremy Scahill, “with a proven track record of support for the Iraq war [and] militaristic interventionism.” How could Obama possibly keep his campaign promise “to end the mindset that got us into war,” asked the editor of The Nation, when none of his top foreign policy/national security picks had opposed the war?

There was even more distress in progressive precincts after Obama’s economic team was announced. Lawrence Summers, who will chair the National Economic Council, “opposed regulating the newfangled financial instruments that greased the way to the subprime meltdown,” wrote David Corn, the Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones magazine, in a column for The Washington Post. Obama’s choice for Treasury secretary, New York Fed president Timothy Geithner, “helped oversee the financial system as it collapsed.” Both of them, lamented Corn, are close to Robert Rubin, “a director of bailed-out Citigroup and a poster boy for … Big Finance.”

Add to those the passel of former Clinton operatives who have returned to play key roles in the Obama transition, including Rahm Emanuel, John Podesta, and Greg Craig, and Obama Girl herself could be forgiven for feeling disillusioned. Whatever happened to the fresh, progressive candidate who promised an escape from Clinton-era Democratic politics?

As if all that weren’t enough to give a fervent liberal agita, Obama has asked the Rev. Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. From many on the left, where Warren’s staunch opposition to same-sex marriage is reason enough to loathe him, responses have ranged from dismay to fury. Barney Frank labeled the pastor’s views “very offensive” and pronounced himself “very disappointed” that Obama would invite him. The blog Liberal Rapture was more pungent: “Obama throws another middle finger to liberals.”

A few reflections:

1. It’s never advisable to fall in love with a politician; sooner or later, you’re bound to feel betrayed. While Obama’s true believers may be feeling jilted, can they really claim he gave them no warning? After all, once he nailed down the Democratic nomination in June, Obama began backing away from one liberal stance after another: on banning handguns, on NAFTA, on Iran, on warrantless wiretapping, on public financing of the presidential campaign, on the death penalty for child rape - even, eventually, on the desirability of swiftly withdrawing US troops from Iraq. He was not the candidate of left-wing ideological purity: Could he have put it any more clearly?

2. Actually, he did put it more clearly. He ran explicitly against believing “that we’re doomed to fight the same tired partisan battles over and over again” and in favor of changing America into “a country that no longer sees itself as a collection of Red States and Blue States.” However one-sided his voting record in Illinois and the US Senate, he pledged something different if he were elected president. For now, at least, he’s making good on his pledge.

3. Still, Obama is hardly in danger of turning into anything resembling a right-winger. With his trillion-dollar “stimulus” proposal, he is inviting comparisons to FDR. And with committed liberals like Tom Daschle as Health and Human Services secretary, Carol Browner as energy czar, and Eric Holder as attorney general, the Obama administration is never going to be accused of harboring Republican tendencies.

4. Most Americans are not explicitly ideological, and most, so far, think very highly of Obama. According to Gallup, 67 percent of the public is confident of his ability to be a good president; 71 percent view him favorably. OK, so Barney Frank and The Nation are complaining about him. There are worse fates. 

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