Should We Get Hot and Bothered By Obama’s Personnel Choices?

The man giving the invocation at Obama’s inauguration doesn’t like gays, his pick for Secretary of Agriculture is a supporter of corn-based ethanol with only incipient reformist tendencies, his choice for Interior seems to have big fans in the oil and mining community, and his next Transportation Secretary is a Republican lacking any serious record on transit issues. In short, the trepidation that Obama’s early cabinet picks triggered in parts of the left continues as he fills in the few remaining spots.

So should those of us on the left get all hot and bothered? There are three ways to think about Obama’s frequently uninspiring and occasionally troubling appointments.

(1) These appointees are bad symbolism in the service of good policy. Because Obama is picking people who occupy the center, center-left, and center-right, he can count on the support of huge swaths of the people from all ideological backgrounds when he tries to push genuinely progressive policy initiatives.

Unfortunately, we simply cannot accept this as true. Not yet, anyway. We don’t know that Obama wants to push genuinely progressive policy initiatives. There are reasons to suggest that he does, of course. But Democrats who take it as a matter of faith that Obama is tapping people like Warren to co-opt the right and get them behind him for when he passes wonderfully liberal policy are projecting their hopes onto Obama’s future policy agenda. We don’t know the policy yet. All we know is the symbolism.

Besides, Rahm Emmanuel puts the lie to this idea somewhat. Rahm isn’t just willing to use bad symbolism in service of good policy. His career in the House leadership involved several episodes where he used bad policy in service of keeping Democrats in power.

(2) We should freak out because Obama is clearly throwing progressives under the bus. We’re underrepresented in his cabinet and we’re underrepresented in his transition staff. Warren — the Warren choice has really ratcheted this debate up a notch — is a giant middle finger to the tens of millions of liberal Americans who worked so hard to get Obama elected.

I don’t buy this either. There is too much evidence in Obama’s history as a legislator and as a candidate to suggest he will abandon progressive principles and govern as a centrist. He obviously doesn’t want to be seen as in bed with the progressive community, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t hear them. Nor does it mean they will always be shut out of Obama’s Washington. Also, keep in mind that Obama did hire a couple folks directly out of the netroots, including Mike Lux, to work for his transition.

(3) Wait and see. Obama’s picks don’t have the track record or the reformist zeal that many on the left would like to see, but it’s Obama himself who directs policy. It is possible that these capable, experienced Cabinet appointments have been chosen because they are best able to run the federal bureaucracy efficiently and effectively, and that they will take their policy ques from a president who is to their left philosophically.

Or maybe that’s completely and utterly wrong. The point is we just don’t know what the picks bode for policy. It is worthwhile to bitch and moan, because that lets Obama know the progressive community is paying close attention and not growing complacent post-victory. It hopefully exerts a leftward pull on his policy and personnel moves. But any gnashing of teeth and tearing of garments is premature. Let’s take a deep breath and wait for Obama to introduce his first legislative package. At that point, the issue of symbolism will be moot and policy can be evaluated on its merits.