Little did we know that “Change we can believe in” really meant “Change that will delight the Right and freak out the Left.” But if the rumors and hints about President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet picks are any clue, it may be that both conservatives and liberals had Barack Obama pegged wrong.
If several months ago someone had said that the Obama administration would be chocked full of Clinton administration retreads and have a national security team featuring the woman who advocated bombing Iran to smithereens in the event it launched a nuclear attack on Israel, few would have believed it. But that’s what seems to be in the offing.
As for the national security team, many conservatives are elated by the prospect that Hillary Clinton — rather than Bill Richardson or John Kerry — will be heading to Foggy Bottom. During the campaign, she often played the role of hard-liner while Obama played to the netroot gallery. She took issue with then-candidate Obama’s reticence to voice tough language against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. She also backed the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist organization, while he opposed the measure. (He later reversed course in a speech before AIPAC after sewing up the nomination.) This endeared her to conservatives and infuriated the Democratic liberal base.
And, indeed, Republicans ranging from former John McCain aide Michael Goldfarb to Henry Kissinger to Arizona Senator John Kyl have encouraged the nomination. Clinton, rightly or wrongly, was seen as the best hope to steer President-elect Obama toward a more muscular foreign policy and one more inclined to support Israel’s security concerns.
Now word has come that Bush Defense Secretary Bob Gates may stay on. That certainly does not sound like a recipe for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq or a 25% reduction in defense spending, as Rep. Barney Frank advocated during the campaign.
So if “personnel is policy,” then all of this suggests that the Obama administration will look like the second George Herbert Walker Bush term — sober, tough, cautious, and engaged. The Left might not like it, but Republicans who feared far, far worse could not be more delighted.
There are a few explanations for this. First, it may be that Obama does not care all that much about national security policy and wants to leave it in capable hands while he rushes off to re-enact the domestic New Deal. He will be incurring enough conservative wrath there, so better to leave them pinching themselves with amazed joy on national security policy.
Another theory is that Obama never believed much of anything he was telling the left wingers during the campaign. It was all a carefully devised scheme to capture the nomination. The “cynical” view of Obama’s persona is that he has simply used one ultra-liberal affiliation after another (e.g., Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers’ Annenberg Challenge) to claw his way into power. Now there, he can relax and let his inner, thoroughly conventional and establishment self “loose.”
And yet another explanation is that he is entirely a political creature, devoid of well-thought out policy positions. Clinton was selected to get her out of the Senate. Gates will calm the GOP. Rahm Emanuel will keep a lid on Nancy Pelosi. It is all about power — consolidating it and preventing well-formed opposition.
Whatever your favorite theory, it is safe to say that the emerging Obama administration, at least so far, bears very little resemblance to the Left’s fantasy lineup. As Michael Goldfarb wrote:
What Gates can do is provide Obama with the cover to remove troops more quickly. Gates will be one of only a few voices who can credibly say that the facts on the ground allow for Obama’s timeline — that Obama isn’t threatening the gains made by U.S. troops. But Gates can also help provide Obama with the cover to move a little more slowly than his supporters might like — another voice cautioning, from the inside, against too quick a draw-down.
There’s almost no one who would object to keeping Gates at the helm. As Harry Reid approvingly noted, Gates isn’t even a registered Republican. The usual suspects will whine about how this isn’t the change they were promised, or that keeping Gates furthers the perception that Democrats are soft on defense — in this case too soft for even Obama to find one up to the task of secretary — but that’s all background noise.
Pardoning Lieberman, reaching out to Clinton, and keeping on Gates — perhaps things won’t be as bad as we feared.
If boring Clinton moderates and right/center national security officials are what are in store, it may be that Obama’s greatest problem in 2012 is a revolt of the Left. Now that’s change conservatives can believe in!