Barack Obama’s potential appointments to key positions are already raising alarm bells among some progressives. As names associated with the Clinton Administration have been floated--and former Clintonite Rahm Emanuel already selected as Chief of Staff--some progressives are already charging that Obama is violating his mandate for change. But assessing a future President Obama by his possible or even eventual appointees should come with a large Caution! Past experience shows--and Robert Reich and Carol Browner are two of many examples--that the ideology or background of appointees is no predictor of their impact in the Administration. In fact, while a president’s response to conservative criticism of his appointees can send a broader message, the same cannot usually be said for the nominees themselves. President Barack Obama will be calling the shots, and his appointees will be fulfilling his agenda, not their own.
Although Barack Obama ran a very progressive campaign, many now act as if the only basis for interpreting the President-elect’s political views is through his appointments. Some progressives are already concerned that Rahm Emanuel and other possible appointees once worked for the Clinton Administration; this is said to invalidate Obama’s commitment to change. Other possibilities are being scrutinized as if they, rather than Barack Obama, will be setting the agenda in their policy area.
A brief word on Emanuel. While he would not be my choice for President, he is a great choice for someone who will fight like crazy to enact Barack Obama’s progressive agenda. Those who see him as moving Obama to the center insult our president-elect; those who are concerned about Emanuel’s rough edges ought to try getting something passed in Congress--I have, and that experience confirmed that you need someone with Emanuel’s personality on your side.
The Clinton Administration
After Bill Clinton won the 1992 election, many looked to his appointees to get a measure of the new president’s agenda. Let’s look at some of these key appointees, the original expectations, and how they ultimately performed.
While Reich’s appointment as Secretary of Labor raised some concerns among unions (he did not have the pro-union reputation he has today), the selection of the former Clinton classmate and friend was seen as the president’s endorsement of strategies to lift the incomes of working people.
What happened? Reich was dispatched to sell NAFTA to liberal groups, and never got to implement any major new employment programs for the working-class. He ended up writing a book, Locked in the Cabinet
, that described how his ideas were ignored and how pro- corporate voices dominated the Clinton cabinet.
Environmentalists were jubilant when she was appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
What happened? The Clinton Administration prevented her from implementing any strong environmental initiatives during its first term (she is now on Obama’s transition team.)
I was among those housing advocate thrilled when Clinton picked the former San Antonio Mayor to head HUD, believing that his stature and political background would finally get us a major boost in federal funding for affordable housing and to combat homelessness.
What happened? If Cisneros tried to get a major influx of new housing money, he did so quietly and failed in the attempt. I would describe his tenure as a complete failure, despite his personal support for affordable housing.
I learned from the Cisneros experience that ex-politicians do not necessarily make strong Cabinet members. They are less willing to rally their constituency against a fellow politician, fear “making waves” will jeopardize future opportunities, and often want to curry a President’s favor for some future political race.
It was not until Cisneros was replaced by Andrew Cuomo
, who was extremely unpopular among affordable housing advocates in New York City, that any progress was made at HUD. Cuomo’s aggressive and often confrontational personality cut through both the bureaucratic and political obstacles to increased housing funding, forcing a reluctant Clinton Administration to bow to his will.
Cuomo was likely the most effective HUD Secretary since the agency was created. And if he sounds a lot like Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new Chief of Staff, you will understand why many of us think that the Chicago congressman was a great choice for the job.
I could go on and on about Clinton appointees that gave misleading signals about his intentions, but want to distinguish this argument from a president’s handling of appointments, which can prove quite revealing.
Case in point is Lani Guinier, whose appointment as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in April 1993 was rescinded after Republicans attacked her as a “quota queen.” The President’s capitulation to such false attacks became emblematic of his Administration, and was followed by his reluctance to appoint publicly recognized civil rights advocates to federal judgeships.
The George W. Bush Administration
In case anyone thinks that Bill “triangulator” Clinton is the exception, consider the misleading messages sent by George W. Bush’s appointments.
When Don Rumsfeld
was appointed Secretary of Defense, he was portrayed as a “reformer” who would create a lean and mean military. Instead, he presided over the greatest amount of Pentagon bloat in our nation’s history.
In what was widely described as a show of bipartisanship, Bush appointed longtime Democratic Congressman Norm Mineta
as Secretary of Transportation. This appointment was followed by the most partisan administration in the nation’s history.
’s appointment was supposed to reassure the nation that someone with good sense would be in charge of foreign policy. Yet Bush used Powell’s credibility to sell false data about Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons, showing that the Obama supporter’s appointment primarily served neoconservative ends.
Obama’s Economic Team
Progressive anxiety about Obama’s appointments center on his economic team. The concern is that appointing free-traders, and/or those connected with Robert Rubin, sends a message that Obama will follow Bill Clinton’s economic agenda.
But such fears ignore the difference between Clinton and Obama, and the bases that elected them.
Bill Clinton was elected as a free-trade, DLC Democrat, and labor played only a small role in his 1992 victory. In contrast, Barack Obama was very critical of NAFTA, rejected the DLC, and knows that organized labor was key to his victory.
Given his clear convictions, why should Obama’s appointment of a highly skilled economist who has either favored free-trade or has ties to Rubin, be cause for alarm?
After all, if Obama now wants to implement Clinton-type economic policies, he will do so even if he appoints progressive economic advisors.
As I find myself repeatedly saying to fellow progressives: once Obama takes office, he should be held fully accountable should he break his commitment to meaningful change. But the best way to ensure change is for Obama to pick people who can best implement his agenda; if our new President goes sideways, blame him not his advisors.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the newly released, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)