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Obama’s Shrewd Choices

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Posted on Nov 26, 2008

By Joe Conason

While Barack Obama introduced the first members of his economic team, a wailing noise could be heard somewhere in the background. That was the sound of complaining liberals, who worry that the president-elect is already surrendering the progressive moment to centrists—the kind of post-election disappointment with which they are all too familiar.

Looking over the names of the new Obama appointees to important positions in the Treasury and the White House, critics on the left have dismissed them as “Clintonite retreads” or worse. According to this gloomy analysis, the incoming administration is poised to repeat the mistakes of the past rather than create new policy for the future, by staffing itself with economists wedded to old ideologies of deregulation and budget-balancing, rather than government intervention and public investment.

If resumes represented destiny, then there would certainly be cause for concern.

After all, most of Mr. Obama’s top advisers—notably including Tim Geithner, the new Treasury secretary, and Larry Summers, the new director of the National Economic Council—either served in the Clinton administration or have some other connection to Robert Rubin, the man responsible for “Rubinomics” when he oversaw the Treasury during those years. The combination of fiscal discipline and deregulation that bear his name, once lauded as the foundation of an unprecedented boom, seem not only irrelevant but wrongheaded. His reputation has been badly damaged, meanwhile, by the fall of Citigroup, where he oversaw a ruinous and seemingly reckless investment strategy.

Long gone are the days when a smiling Rubin appeared on the covers of the newsmagazines alongside Alan Greenspan, whose record as Federal Reserve chairman and avatar of laissez-faire economics is equally discredited. By now it would be natural for Summers—who succeeded Rubin at Treasury—to wish that everyone would forget his was the third face on those same magazine covers.

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But when liberals point to Summers and other members of the Obama team, crying betrayal, they misunderstand the strategy behind those appointments. The most important thing to remember about the president-elect as he prepares to govern is that he takes the long view—and that he knows how to make a reasonable case for radical change. He has not taken one step back from the commitments he articulated during his campaign.

Indeed, Obama has steadfastly refused to scale back his platform of spending initiatives, from infrastructure to health care, despite all the tut-tutting commentary. Instead, even as he rolled out his team, he pledged a very substantial spending increase during the first two years of his term as the only means to prevent the recession from plunging into something far worse.

And his appointees will implement the Obama program, not only because that is what he tells them to do but because that is what they have come to believe is best for the country. Whatever Summers or Geithner or any of the other centrists on the new team may once have said or thought, they will pursue a course of massive counter-cyclical spending, public investment and strong new regulation.

Several of the significant figures chosen by Obama, such as budget chief Peter Orszag and adviser Jason Furman, have defended liberal priorities throughout their careers. The economists who have influenced them include not just Rubin but also Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning progressive.

But even Rubin—who once came to symbolize the Democratic Party’s submission to market fundamentalism—has endorsed a new progressive direction. The Washington think tank associated with him, known as the Hamilton Project, promotes public investment and a refurbished social safety net.

As for Summers, just last month he published an essay in the Financial Times that seemed to acknowledge past errors, writing that the “wealth and income gains from the easy availability of credit were highly concentrated in the hands of a fortunate few.”

Sounding liberal themes, he went on to call for a strict new regulatory regime and measures to ensure that the nation’s future prosperity will be broad-based and inclusive. He and the rest of the Obama team possess the managerial competence to implement those policies, which is why the president-elect appointed them. He knows that the proof will be in the pudding and not the cooks.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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By Muscleboy, December 1, 2008 at 1:44 am Link to this comment

I reject your catagorizations of people. It really is a very sick game and part of the process of misinformation and deceptions that seems to be the reality of American government today and many in the so-called media/press. The informed American people who survived the brainwashing of so complex and massive a nature and elected Barack Obama president, comprehensively rejecting the criminality of what you are calling centrist thought or beliefs. Deregulating BANKING is not a legitimate belief system it is a CRIME.  It isn’t LIBERAL to say so either.  The American people want this entire load of BS ***ENDED NOW!!!***.  They did not say “it’s ok to become much more “republican”” once you are elected Senator Obama.  If the Republicans had gotten such a massive victory they certainly would proclaim the 21st century theirs and a likely termination of the Democratic party in no uncertain terms.  The Republicons are, practically speaking not even a national party after this election.  Yet of all the brilliant minds we have to chose from in the USA we come down to a handful of bank mobsters and defense industrial complex approved hoods.  This is not what Obama promised.  This is what McCain promised. THIS IS WHAT WE WANTED TO END COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY!!

It doesn’t look good at this point.

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By JakePDX, November 29, 2008 at 1:44 pm Link to this comment

He’s talking about policy, and the general direction of the country, not cabinet appointments. We need to give him a chance to make that change happen, he has earned at least that much. Let’s not jump to conclusions based on his personnel. Let him prove that he knows what he’s doing—he hasn’t even taken office yet.

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By MAR, November 29, 2008 at 1:09 pm Link to this comment

Who are these ultra-leftists? Marxists? Anarchists?
They think those on the right have made a mess. I have lived in the messes that the leftists make and never again.

1. They understand how to spend money on every welfare proposal you might want to think of. They are even good at crafting social programs as long as you don’t count the cost. When they take over they go on a spending spree, draining all the reserves of cash and credit that have been accumulated by wiser governments. They are clueless as to how wealth is created - they think it is really done by labor. Their attempts at entrtrepreneurial wealth-creation almost always end up as major financial fiascoes and boondoggles. I could list a few.

Now the right, as we have just seen can be downright dangerous if you don’t regulate their goals and performance. Give them a chance and they will steal the Washington Monument (They have already sold the bridges). What you have gone through is the worst case of unbridled irresponsibility we have seen. The theories were wrong and the country is now mortgaged (sub-prime.)

But socialism just does not work as history has shown time and again. Britain - the labor unions ended up running the country and driving it into the dirt - hence Margaret Thatcher.
Scandanavia. It’s handy to have some solid industries to supply the gold - steel, world class industrial machinery - paper machines, sawmills, and so on.
Russia, East Germany - run into the dirt by ideological prerequiites that have no relation to economics and so on.

No if Obama is to fix the American economic machine he needs competent mechanics who canapply the tools once he is clear on WHAT is to be doen.

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By Bubba, November 29, 2008 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment

Let me see if I can distill Inherit The Wind’s objections:

WAAA! WAAA! WAAA!

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By yosa, November 29, 2008 at 12:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Conason continues the tap dance.
Et Tu Joe?

The entire argument here is insane.
Rubin is Not at all a free market fantasylander who bears a huge amount of responsibility for our economic collapse! He’s a GOOD GUY! Reformed at least…look at this token charity!

Gates is a Competent Secretary of Defense! A non-partisan realist! Not at all a complete sycophant whose career has been based on telling his superiors what they want to hear!
Praise Be!

Obama is actually a lefty, cleverly packing his cabinet with right-wing Democrats whose primary qualifications are their blind adherence to absurd economic doctrines that have just been shown (again!) to be wholly fallacious!

They’ve learned from their errors!
They will no longer torture and murder the poor and the disenfranchised while further enriching the wealthy!

Honest! You can trust them!
After all, they’re overwhelmingly Clintonites!
The most trustworthy and populist Democrats of all!

And anyway they don’t need you filthy proles anymore! They’ve grabbed the sceptre, so Shut up and go back to watching American Gladiators!

Let these cool, Pragmatic, EXPERIENCED Washington Realists (lobbyists, businessmen) do what they do best!

Just like LBJ and Kennedy! Pragmatic realists, who knew you had to compromise a principle now and then to get Things done! 
Wasn’t Vietnam AWESOME?

I think we need a Surge in Afghanistan!
It’ll Totally work, and Robert Gates is Just The man For The Job!

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By Suzie Kidder, November 29, 2008 at 10:36 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m going to quote this verbatim - couldn’t a said it better myself ...

“The way it’s supposed to work, Obama as Prez tells his “crew” what to do and they do it.  He provides the “what” that needs doing and the crew provides the “how” that “what” gets done.  Experience in knowing how to effect change is wonderful because it expedites getting things done.  After eight years of a helmsman who ran our ship of state, ie, America, like a blind drunken pirate, it’s going to take a little time to fix things.  Obama’s “whats” are what count and as long as they’re nothing like Bush’s “whats” America’s gonna be okay.  Given the right marching orders, experienced worker bees do better than novices.”

And I would add just one thought - that if you were going to try to radically change a particular arena - be it environmental, economic, etc. - wouldn’t you want to hire the very most accomplished folks to implement your vision?  There are at least a million possible ways to stumble when doing something this complicated, but the team he’s chosen is already aware of 999,997 of them - since they were the ones who “stepped in it big time.”  Give this a chance to work before we pile on, but keep the pressure on Obama to keep turning Left.

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By Inherit The Wind, November 29, 2008 at 9:00 am Link to this comment

Let me see if I can distill the objections here to Conason’s article:

“WAAA! He didn’t make Dennis Kucinich Secretary of State!”
“WAAA! He didn’t make Ralph Nader Secretary of the Treasury”.
“WAAA! He didn’t make Cynthia McKinney Attorney General”.

etc, etc, etc.  That’s the essence of the primal screams we are hearing.  Obama didn’t appoint the people he never said he would appoint.

No, he didn’t.  He never said he would.  And I, for one, am VERY glad of that.

I think Barack Obama understands he doesn’t need to appease the ultra-left because he’ll lose the moderates and the middle—the very people who voted him in.  McCain didn’t understand that and sought to appease the ultra-right.  Obama’s going to the White House and McCain’s going BACK to the Senate.

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By dihey, November 29, 2008 at 8:46 am Link to this comment

The “exonerate Obama” production is in high gear but does not fool me one bit.

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By WR Curley, November 29, 2008 at 7:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It becomes increasingly clear that - like Bush before him - Obama did not choose. He was chosen.

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ghostofwatergate's avatar

By ghostofwatergate, November 28, 2008 at 11:53 pm Link to this comment

“If resumes represented destiny, then there would certainly be cause for concern.”

What kind of stupid statement is that? Instead, how about: based on their resumes, these guys have a proven history of bone-headed decisions, up to and including highway robbery; therefore, we recommend *extreme* caution, if not outright panic.

How about that?

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prole's avatar

By prole, November 28, 2008 at 7:24 pm Link to this comment

“While Barack Obama introduced the first members of his economic team”... a snickering noise ...“could be heard somewhere in the background.” That was the stealth neo-con’s and Likudniks behind the Obama scam chortling with
glee as the president-elect stabbed the progressive movement in the back again, “the kind of post-election disappointment with which they are all too familiar.” For, “If resumes represented destiny, then there would
certainly be cause for concern”... but fear not, that obvious cause for concern can be swiftly allayed by a cosmetic media makeover. Our obliging establishment journalistic shils can spin out a little glib doublespeak that can re-invent those tired, old discredited political hacks, before you can say, Presto, Change-o! And voila! There they all are in their new rhetorical finery, adorned so splendidly in their exalted emperor’s new clothes!“Whatever Summers or Geithner or any of the other centrists on the new team may once have said or thought, they will pursue a course of massive counter-cyclical spending, public investment and strong new regulation.” Why? Because, of course, that is what all these newly born-again public benefactors, “have come to believe is best for the country.“‘Trust me!’ Wait, hold your laughter, it gets better! For it seems, “even Rubin—who once came to symbolize the Democratic Party’s submission to market fundamentalism—has endorsed a new progressive direction.” Jolly big of him, hey? And not a whiff of opportunism to be scented anywhere in the pure mountain air on the new high road to political Shangri-La. And as if that’s not slimy enough, that chameleon creepy-crawler Larry Summers has to get in on the act, “just last month he published an essay in the Financial Times that seemed to acknowledge past errors, writing that the ‘wealth and income gains from the easy availability of credit were highly concentrated in the hands of a fortunate few.’” No, really? Imagine that, what a revelation! And just in the nick of time, too! And is if that wasn’t bad enough, “he went on to say”...what! they let him go on?!! So take it from our public-spirited journalistic watchdogs, “He and the rest of the Obama team possess the managerial competence to implement those policies, which is why the president-elect appointed them. He knows that the proof will be in the pudding and not the cooks.” And we know that too many c[r]ooks like that spoil the broth!

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By purucker1, November 28, 2008 at 6:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear Joe, looks like you have joined the “Club of the Centrist”. Sad, you once were a bright star on the journalist sky.But it seems to be in style to convert: Liberals to Centrist and Centrist to “obedient” Liberals.Obamas speech at AIPAC should have been a warning of things to come as was his and Hilarys meeting on that famous Thursday with the Bilderberg Group.Oh well, we will watch the drama unfold.At least we have a good looking, eloquent Star who should get an Oscar if he can keep this country afloat.So much for the Messiah Image, just a brilliant ” Politician”.

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By realveive, November 28, 2008 at 4:02 pm Link to this comment

The way it’s supposed to work, Obama as Prez tells his “crew” what to do and they do it.  He provides the “what” that needs doing and the crew provides the “how” that “what” gets done.  Experience in knowing how to effect change is wonderful because it expedites getting things done.  After eight years of a helmsman who ran our ship of state, ie, America, like a blind drunken pirate, it’s going to take a little time to fix things.  Obama’s “whats” are what count and as long as they’re nothing like Bush’s “whats” America’s gonna be okay.  Given the right marching orders, experienced worker bees do better than novices.

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By Bubba, November 28, 2008 at 3:51 pm Link to this comment

Might you also be interested in buying some shares Obama sold me of a very nice bridge?

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By truedigger3, November 28, 2008 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment

Joe Conason,

Are you trying to kid yourself or B.S. us.
Those people have a long history of calling for and supporting complete financial markets deregulations.
Rubin with Phil Gramm worked on cancelling all the
safeguards put during the Great Depression e.g. “The Glass-Steagall act and by that made the financial markets “free for every shenanigan on the book”.
Deregulating the financial markets is the root cause
of the current economic disaster.

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By John Murphy, November 28, 2008 at 1:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The article is perhaps one of the best examples of political cognitive dissonance I’ve seen in a while. Joe Conason must of course admit that Obama has drafted the most right wing cabinet imaginable for a Democrat. Unable to deal with this reality, because it is so monstrous and conflicts with his preconceived ideas of Barack Obama, Conason has convinced himself that this is just an example of Obama making “shrewd choices” and that Obama takes the “long view”; that he knows how to make a reasonable case for radical change. (When has Obama ever championed “radical change”? If he ever championed “radical change” he would never have been the hand-picked choice of Boss Richard Daley.)

I spent 20 years as a management consultant. When executives fail as miserably as Obama’s choices, they don’t get promoted; they get fired. By failure I mean, in this case, the failure to embody progressive values. If you want to put a management team together that will achieve the objectives required by the organization, in this case the nation, you choose people with a track record of success and you choose people who have demonstrated shared values. If you want to get out of Iraq you don’t put Paul Wolfowitz on your team. If you want to break the back of corporatism, you don’t hire a bunch of neoliberal thugs like Summers, you hire people like Ralph Nader.

Sure, staff members are supposed to carry out the policies of the chief executive but the chief executive would be cutting his own throat by engaging a staff whose track record is completely opposed to the achievement of those policies.

Obama’s choice of advisers is much more representative of the way he plans to govern than anything he has ever promised in any speech he has ever made. Obama is a creature of the corporate money which paid for his election. It is the Corporation which Obama sees as his constituency, certainly not the people of the United States of America. The only way Democrats like Joe Conason have of dealing with this cognitive dissonance is rationalizing it as “shrewd choices”.

Joe Conason should understand that the relief he seeks from his cognitive dissonance however is simultaneously a major impediment to real progressive change. Of course it is a lot easier to cling to some preconceived notion by shutting your eyes to new evidence, or explaining it away with ad hoc hypotheses like “Obama makes shrewd choices”.

But when preconceived notions are held with such mental strength that it is automatically assumed that the evidence supporting them also carries great weight; once confronted with evidence contradicting the preconceived notion of Obama, one must then assume, like Joe Conason, that either the new evidence has much less weight than the old, or that the ad hoc hypotheses dreamed up to bridge the evidential gap are themselves supported by weighty evidence. The ad hoc hypotheses themselves become part of the “truth”, making the whole mental structure even more difficult to dislodge and will result in a hard-core, right wing Obama administration that will be rationalized away just as the Clinton administration has been by Conason-style Democrats.

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By Shift, November 28, 2008 at 1:32 pm Link to this comment

Say it ain’t so Joe !  Let’s not suffer further the poor fool Obama.  He interpreted the idea of keeping one’s enemies close as inviting them into his home and making them a part of the family.  The obama goose appears to be cooked, served, and unfit for consumption.  Oh well, it was fun while it lasted…

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By Michael, November 28, 2008 at 11:12 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks Joe. But I want to hear the reasons from the guy that promised everyone change. We’re waiting Mr. President-elect.

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By RdV, November 28, 2008 at 10:33 am Link to this comment

...a wailing noise could be heard somewhere in the background. That was the sound of complaining liberals

Notice how it is framed—not only does it engage in Right-wing liberal bashing, it characterizes those wailing liberals as background noise.
  So tell me on what issue are the liberals out of step with the VAST MAJORITY OF THE POPULATION?

  Beware these jerkoffs sent out to mold consensus.

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By SamSnedegar, November 28, 2008 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

what ever happened to raising money via non-voting stock issues? Perhaps bailouts are easier and more likely to produce the necessary cash, but “preferred” stock USED to be the way that companies raised funds . . . the stock paid a “guaranteed” dividend, and had the advantage of being negotiable.

Of course, in today’s marketplace it could be that no one would BUY preferred stock from a company that had been so mismanaged that it required a bailout.

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By MAR, November 28, 2008 at 10:27 am Link to this comment

right on, Conason

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By scared, November 28, 2008 at 7:50 am Link to this comment

Even if these guys have ‘reformed’ in their ideas, why re-hire people who got it wrong the first time when you could just hire people who were saying the right things from the start?  Are there really no other candidates than these failures?

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By AmiBlue, November 28, 2008 at 7:37 am Link to this comment

Surely President Obama will rely on the opinions and analyses of his advisors to shape the direction he takes the country. Given that many of these same advisors headed us in the wrong direction a short time ago, it seems rational to be suspicious of what they will recommend today.

Trusting, or perhaps better said, hoping that Obama will keep his word is about all his supporters can do at this point.  In the back of my mind interfering with my trust and hope is the remembrance of his reversal on the telecom immunity vote.  So I, for one, am in a wait-and-see, will-he-or-won’t-he betray-our-trust-again mode.

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By Dave Schwab, November 28, 2008 at 7:13 am Link to this comment

Hoho! Silly liberals. Don’t you know that the experts will take care of everything? They’re Democrats. The ones who weren’t, are now. Trust the Democratic experts - they know more than you. Why do you think they have so much more money than you?

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By Outraged, November 28, 2008 at 12:42 am Link to this comment

Article quote: “That was the sound of complaining liberals, who worry that the president-elect is already surrendering the progressive moment to centrists—the kind of post-election disappointment with which they are all too familiar.”

How is it that “liberals” are “complaining”?  Did you mean to say non-crooks?  In addition Mr. Conason you claim Summers, Geither, Rubin and Furman to be centrists….CENTRISTS????? 

How did you arrive at your conclusion?  I wouldn’t call it centrist to endorse policies which caused the demise of the economy and threw the country into a depression.  It seems much too benign to simply use that now catch-all term “centrist” to explain away this reality.  Further you then stamp that supposed dirty word “liberal” on top of it and then, in the same sentence, assert that they’re “complaining”.  That is quite the stretch.  Have you been watching Bill O’Really?  Do you have any data to verify your outlandish position?

The masses…. yes, the masses….DO NOT WANT ANY OF THESE CROOKS IN OR NEAR THE WHITE HOUSE, most especially the Treasury.  This was witnessed during the BIPARTISAN protests and petitions AGAINST the bailout.  It does appear rather suspect that you would assert that the “liberals” are “complaining” though, it really does.

The propaganda of the term “centrist” is getting old…. try something new.  It’s fairly well established that this has nothing to do with being “centrist”.  Unless of course you mean the only NON-CROOKS in America are “non-centrist”.  My experience says this isn’t the case, however I also feel certain that if being “on the left” “conservative” or “progressive” is the new catch-all for honesty ....include me in.

I also found your use of the word “worry” to be meant in a disparaging way.  I think it was the way you aligned, “complaining”, “liberal” and “worry” all cozied up in the matter of just a few words.  Sad… really sad.

But far be it for me to find anything really shitty about that, I’m sure you meant nothing by the choice of those specific words arranged in that specific way, on this specific topic.

BTW, I don’t mean any specific thing in this specific response either.  Now I could go on about how Summers “just last month” turned over his new leaf….but really, what’s the point of hashing these things over and over.  “Just last month”....wow, you don’t say….hmmm… What a guy that Summers…yep, what a guy….

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By john doraemi, November 27, 2008 at 3:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

They changed!  They’re stand up guys now.  Really they have.  Statesmen.  Heroes.  Gods among men.

The basic premise is if they’re Democrats, just forget all the wrongdoing and massive looting (in the trillions).  Forget everything.  Why not just turn off your brains altogether?  How convenient that would be.

http://crimesofthestate.blogspot.com/


PS.

Same Old Gang
Obama’s Odious Entourage
By ERIC WALBERG
http://counterpunch.org/walberg11262008.html

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