Lend Us His Ear

As we wait for the most highly-anticipated inauguration in a generation, President-elect Barack Obama has demonstrated that he belongs in the Oval Office. His approval ratings have topped 70% in Gallup polls as he has put together a Cabinet that should provoke lively debates but it also will keep progressives worried about who’s got Obama’s ear.

Obama’s choices for labor secretary and trade representative are a good example of the potential for creative tension: Organized labor applauded the selection of Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) as labor secretary. The daughter of immigrants, whose father worked at a battery recycling plant and was a member of the Teamsters union, Solis has been a steady pro-labor and progressive representative in four terms in the House from the Los Angeles area. She took a leadership role in fights to help workers organize and bargain collectively, to reframe the trade debate and to defend the rights of workers in the US and abroad during eight years of the most anti-labor administration in modern history. Solis has voted with the AFL-CIO labor federation 97% of the time since coming to Congress—which some Republicans think is an argument against her.

More troubling is Obama’s choice of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk as trade representative. Kirk is a “free trader,” a pro-business Democrat who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China but he opposed fast track for trade deals in an unsuccessful 2002 Senate race. Sure, he looked good against John Cornyn but now he will be responsible for implementing Obama’s pledges to create a new trade and globalization policy for Americans.

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, said on Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS Jan. 9 that the nomination of Solis and Kirk shows Obama was serious when he says he wants to see people debate the issues. “Then he’ll make the choice.” But asked by Moyers if he was worried about that, Gerard replied, “Absolutely I’m worried about that.”

With the economy cratering, Obama started off the transition by naming an economic team that would reassure the financial markets. Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank who has argued that banks should operate under a global regulatory framework, is the new treasury secretary. Lawrence Summers, who was treasury secretary the final year and a half under Bill Clinton and was senior adviser to the Obama campaign, will head of the National Economic Council.

Obama is proposing an economic stimulus package with a mix of tax breaks, aid to state governments for infrastructure improvements and money for renewable energy projects but he indicated he will listen to concerns of Senate Democrats who were critical of proposed business tax credits. Summers and Jason Furman, a senior economic adviser to Obama, met Jan. 11 with 35 Senate Democrats in the Capitol and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told Politico.com, “It’s very clear they’ve listened, they’ve heard and that they’re moving to respond.” Conrad added, “It was very, very healthy. They’re not defensive, not arguing back, they’re listening, they’re attempting to hear and they’re responding.”

Paul Krugman said Obama’s $775 billion package, 40% of which might come from tax breaks, “looks too weak” to close a gap of $2 trillion in lost production, but he added, “It will be a joy to argue policy with an administration that provides comprehensible reports, not case studies in how to lie with statistics.”

Other choices reflect Obama’s pragmatism. The nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary riled some sustainable agriculture activists. The Organic Consumers Association called Vilsack “a shill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto.” Vilsack, a trial lawyer, was a centrist who, as governor, supported biotech and biofuels—popular positions in Iowa—but he kept his door open to sustainable farm advocates and the progressive Farmers Union as well as the more conservative Farm Bureau.

Former Sen. Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader who is nominated to take over health and human services, is well-positioned to pursue universal health care in Congress. He also will be the first Cabinet member in decades to have an office in the West Wing, with the added title of director of the Office of Health Reform.

Eric Holder, former deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton, now up for attorney general, appears to be the most controversial Cabinet nominee. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has complained that Holder has spoken out against torture with “some very unfortunate statements about our interrogation of prisoners.” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking Republican on Judiciary, is looking to rough up Holder with questions about his role in Clinton’s Marc Rich pardon, the Elian Gonzalez controversy and the 1993 federal siege outside Waco, to burnish Specter’s GOP credentials as he faces a potential primary challenge in 2010.

Dawn Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor (and former ACLU counsel) who is up for the Office of Legal Counsel, also likely will face questions about her criticism of memos from the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel that justified torture. Johnsen also lambasted the Bush administration for violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in secret and wrote, “We must resist Bush administration efforts to hide evidence of its wrongdoing through demands for retroactive immunity, assertions of state privilege, and implausible claims that openness will empower terrorists.” Her voice to Barack’s ear.

Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state shouldn’t have major problems implementing Obama foreign policy. She is respected by world leaders and she agrees with Obama on most significant global issues. Obama was looking for stability when he asked Robert Gates to stay on as defense secretary, and he should be able to help Obama withdraw troops from Iraq, even if many of them will be moved to Afghanistan. Retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, a critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, will be a credible national security adviser. The major problem with selection of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a centrist Democrat, as homeland security secretary is that it puts Republicans in charge in Arizona. Obama campaign foreign-policy aide Susan Rice will be a US ambassador to the United Nations who actually believes there is a role for the United Nations.

After the choice of Leon Panetta as CIA director was leaked, it was a good sign that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the incoming chairwoman of the Intelligence committee, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), the outgoing chairman, were unhappy with the selection of an “outsider” to the job. Neither “insider” senator distinguished themselves in their oversight of the Bush administrations excesses. Panetta has little intel experience, although he sat in on briefings when he was President Clinton’s chief of staff, but he certainly has managerial experience. More importantly, he has denounced torture and other Bush administration’s excesses. He also has backed greater control over covert operations.

Another good choice is Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate for physics who, as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, focused research in solar power and other alternative energy sources to address climate change. At the Jan. 13 hearing on his nomination as energy secretary he said that energy efficiency, not increased domestic production, is the key to decreased dependence on foreign oil. This is a refreshing change for an Energy Department that for the past eight years worked as a subsidiary of Big Oil.

That leaves us with the guardian of Obama’s ear, his chief of staff: the walking contradiction that is Rahm Emanuel, who started his political career working for the public interest group Illinois Public Action, helped elect Paul Simon to the Senate in 1984 and Richard M. Daley to his dad’s old office in 1989, then hitched up with Bill Clinton as finance director of his 1992 campaign, earning a place as senior White House adviser. Later he was an investment banker and congressman from the northside of Chicago who helmed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the Dems retook the House. He was on the fast track to House leadership when Obama beckoned. He’ll keep progressives jumpy but it should be a heck of a ride. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 1, 2009

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