You almost have to feel sorry for the left.
President-elect Barack Obama was supposed to be their guy. That woman, Hillary Clinton, was the centrist, reach-across-the-aisle type. They picked Obama because he was going to be the "transformative" leader who didn't need to compromise with the right or even with reality. Heck, Obama the Wise would magically change reality itself, right around the same moment he'd force those pesky oceans to recede.
But unlike, say, J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional character Gandalf, who assembled a fellowship of like-minded compatriots, Obama apparently likes to work alone. Let's review.
In the primaries, he insisted that his opposition to the war in Iraq was his signature qualification, and that Hillary Clinton's and (to the extent he mattered) Joe Biden's support for the war proved they lacked the requisite judgment for the job. Since then, he has tapped Biden to be one heart beat away from the Oval Office and picked Clinton to be his secretary of State.
Obama promised to turn the page on, first and foremost, the Bush years, but also the political approach that marked the Clinton years. Nonetheless, he has not only embraced Hillary, he also has hired Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, to head his National Economic Council, tapped former Clintonite fixer Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff,and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to run his transition.
Even Bush holdovers, nominal and actual, outnumber and outrank serious progressives in the Obama Cabinet. Leading the pack is Robert Gates, President Bush's secretary of Defense the man who oversaw the very troop surge in Iraq that Obama opposed. Timothy Geithner, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, will run the Obama Treasury Department. But Geithner has been a de facto right-hand man of current Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
Indeed, of all Obama's confirmed or reported picks, only Eric Holder, Obama's nominee for attorney general, will cause any furor from the right. Even so, the former Clinton deputy AG is no darling of the left.
To his dismayed followers, Obama says fear not, I am the change. "Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost," he told supporters. "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."
Time magazine's Peter Beinart seconds Obama. "Cheer up," he tells his comrades on the left. "It's precisely because Obama intends to pursue a genuinely progressive foreign policy that he's surrounding himself with people who can guard his right flank at home. When George W. Bush wanted to sell the Iraq war, he trotted out Colin Powell because Powell was nobody's idea of a hawk. Now Obama may be preparing to do the reverse."
It's a nice thought and Beinart might be right about Obama's intentions but if I were an editor at The Nation, or a mutterer at The Huffington Post, who didn't actually believe Obama to be the Messiah, I would find this cold comfort.
First, it's worth noting that Bush didn't pick Powell as his secretary of State to help sell the Iraq war. Bush picked Powell as part of his vision of a "humble" foreign policy (and because Powell was immensely popular among moderates). Moreover, while Powell was a good soldier, when it came time to sell the war, Powell also often undermined the White House usually through self-serving leaks as he pursued his own policy agenda. The notion that Hillary Clinton will be more of a loyalist to Obama than Powell was to Bush requires considerable wishful thinking.
More important, as 9/11 not to mention the financial crisis and the massacre in Mumbai, India shows: Life is full of surprises. Bush's Cabinet, like Obama's, was picked to deal with known problems. Bush tapped Donald Rumsfeld to reform the Pentagon, which he was well-suited to do. But Rumsfeld ended up overseeing a counterinsurgency, which he had no stomach for. Gates was right for that job. Now Obama wants to retain Gates to orchestrate the withdrawal from Iraq. That might make sense, but Iraq isalready fading from the political radar.
Meanwhile, Obama has a very conservative secretary of Defense on his team who will be responsible for more than just Iraq. As new events emerge, Obama will have to rely on his advisers to filter and frame the information he gets and the options he has to deal with them. That's when your team matters.
Just look at the left's own version of the Bush years. According to their tale, the shock of 9/11 forced Bush to rely on a "cabal" of mustache-twirling neoconservative advisers who lay in waiting in the hope of fulfilling their allegedly radical ideological agenda. With the aid of Dick Cheney history's greatest monster the villains controlled the information flow to the president, constraining his options.
Well, who will Obama rely on when hit with the next surprise? The people he has around him, that's who. And, so far, those people ain't left-wingers.
Don't get me wrong. Given the alternatives, I'm delighted with most of Obama's picks. But there's a reason why the old Reaganite phrase "personnel is policy" has become a Washington cliché: Because it's true.
Obama will surely learn that if he tries to implement a left-wing agenda with a centrist team at his disposal.