Obama Faces Liberal Angst

Dec 8, 2008 12:06pm

ABC News’ Rick Klein Reports: Liberals’ just-under-the-surface angst at the emerging makeup of the Obama administration has reached critical mass — enough so that a top Obama operative penned a blanket response at Huffington Post.

The message from Steve Hildebrand, who was Barack Obama’s deputy campaign manager, to liberals: Calm down, be patient — and don’t expect you’ll get everything you want.

“The point I’m making here is that our new president, the Congress and all Americans must come together to solve these problems. This is not a time for the left wing of our Party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-Elect Obama is making,” Hildebrand writes, after listing the enormous challenges President-elect Barack Obama is facing.

Hildebrand continues: “Some believe the appointments generally aren’t progressive enough. Having worked with former Senator Obama for the last two years, I can tell you, that isn’t the way he thinks and it’s not likely the way he will lead. The problems I mentioned above and the many I didn’t, suggest that our president surround himself with the most qualified people to address these challenges. After all, he was elected to be the president of all the people — not just those on the left.”

The message isn’t likely to assuage growing concerns among liberals about the first wave of appointments — and some early policy indications — from the president-elect.

The tone of Hildebrand’s message is rubbing some liberal activists and commentators the wrong way.

“Hildebrand implying that those personnel decisions really don’t matter at all is straight up silly,” David Sirota writes. “But far more important than that is Hildebrand firing up the whaaaaaaaambulance to whine and cry and moan about ‘the left.’ Really, what is with top Democrats explicitly attacking ‘the left wing of the Democratic Party’ in Fox News-style talking points? Why is every substantive, non-partisan, non-ideological question of pragmatism from progressives almost automatically portrayed as some sort of super-Trotsky-ite, ideological and wholly inappropriate demand for Obama to be a president ‘just for those on the left?’ Can anyone even ask a non-ideological question of Obama without being attacked as some sort of raving left-wing lunatic?”

Writes Greg Sargent (h/t Ben Smith): “Really, one has to ask if Hildebrand is really trying to reassure ‘the left wing of our party,’ or whether he’s trying to stir them up further out of some unknown political calculation or other.” 

The complaints from the left focus mostly — though not entirely — on personnel, at least at this point.

On the national-security side, Obama’s selection of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and James Jones to head up his team has upset some strong opponents of the Iraq war. None of the three opposed the war at the start, like Obama did, and at least Gates and Jones could plausibly have received Cabinet posts in a McCain administration.

Turning to the economic team, Obama’s choice of Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary and Lawrence Summers to direct the National Economic Council has also upset some liberals.

“Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin,” Frank Rich wrote in his Sunday New York Times column. “Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.”

Writes OpenLeft blogger Chris Bowers: “Beyond perceived ideological leanings, it bothers me even more to see people who screwed up the country and the world so badly via support for the Iraq war and / or de-regulation of the financial sector be rewarded with major administration positions.”

Several prominent progressive voices have criticized Obama for backing off his pledge to impose a special tax on “windfall” profits derived by oil companies. Obama aides say the tax is no longer relevant because the price of oil is down so much, but the transition team isn’t committing to imposing it if prices spike.

This is going to be ongoing challenge for Obama. Even many Republicans believe that, as president, Obama will clash more often and openly with the left of his party than he will the center or the right — or even than he will with mainstream Republicans.

Obama’s politics are center-left, though with an emphasis on the center, and a strong inclination toward accommodation and comity. And he’s turning to old Clinton administration hands in stocking his government — making good on his pledge to move beyond old rivalries, though maybe less so on his promise to remake the look of the federal government.

Obama’s selection of Eric Shinseki, who clashed with Donald Rumsfeld over Iraq war troop levels back in 2003, to serve as secretary of Veterans Affairs was greeted with cheer by some liberal voices. But Shinseki won’t be developing national-security policies from that post.

Obama has a few more chances to make peace with liberals: He has yet to name nominees for Energy, Interior, or the Environmental Protection Agency.

But if the left isn’t satisfied, look for them to get a bit louder.

“He has confirmed what our suspicions were by surrounding himself with a centrist to right cabinet. But we do hope that before it’s all over we can get at least one authentic progressive appointment,” Tim Carpenter, national director of the Progressive Democrats of America, told Politico.

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