Obama’s Team of Rivals

With surprising haste and insensitivity, Barack Obama’s alienating the most serious, activist component of his political base. The blogosphere’s been seething in indignation for weeks. Chris Bowers, of the OpenLeft.com blog, calls Obama’s cabinet “a center-right foreign policy team” and pronounces himself  “incredibly frustrated. Progressives are being entirely left out of Obama’s major appointments so far. . . Even after two landslide elections in a row, are our only governing options as a nation either all right-wing Republicans, or a centrist mixture of Democrats and Republicans? Isn’t there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration?”  Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos site, calls the Obama team “tone deaf” to the views of “the American electorate that voted in overwhelming numbers for change from the discredited Bush policies.”

The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, protesting the retention of Robert Gates as Obama’s Secretary of Defense, writes, “Maybe being right about the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history doesn’t mean much inside the Beltway? How else to explain that not a single top member of Obama’s foreign policy/national security team opposed the war—or the dubious claims leading up to it?” “I don’t know what he’s doing,” says Tom Hayden. “This is not governing from the center. This is governing from the past.” Historian Paul Street observes: “It bothers a growing number of Obama’s liberal backers to learn that, as Wall Street Journal editorial board member Matthew Kaminski notes, ‘the Obama camp says the future president, who won running from the left, intends to govern from the center’ (WSJ, December 6/7, 2008, A8).”

A lot of liberal Democrats—people who believe in the system (although maybe less so day by day, since it isn’t being very good to them)—are echoing the complaint from David Corn of Mother Jones: “This Wasn’t Quite the Change We Pictured.” Perhaps they feel, to put it in Marxian terms, that he exploited their labor power during the election campaign, and now for all their efforts on his behalf he’s slapping them in the face.

It should be plain to everyone that the inexperienced junior senator from Illinois defeated his heavily favored rival Hillary Clinton in the primaries for one principal reason: she’d voted for the war on Iraq in 2002 while he, still in the Illinois state legislature, opposed it. His victory over McCain surely owes much to the economic crisis, which eclipsed the war as voters’ primary concern; still, it’s safe to say that Obama owes his presidency to the antiwar voter.

This is not to say that Obama was ever a consistent or eloquent spokesman for the antiwar movement; on the contrary. He called the invasion of Iraq “dumb,” “rash,” “a strategic blunder”—language lacking both analytical clarity and moral outrage. He’s always called for a “responsible” (as opposed to immediate) withdrawal, his latest proposal involving a flexible timeline of sixteen months. Meanwhile since mid-2007 he’s been agitating for at least two more divisions to be sent into Afghanistan, which he sees as the true center of the “war on terror,” and he’s called for strikes into Pakistan such as have indeed become routine in recent months under the Bush administration. In his June 2008 speech before AIPAC Obama, like Bush,  declared that no options should be left off the table in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, which he assumes (contrary to the November 2007 NIE) is a military program.  In that same AIPAC presentation he called the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization,” thereby aligning himself with those who voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Act (for which he’d been absent and actually described as “saber-rattling”). He has, in short, proven himself quite hawkish, and those fancying him the “antiwar candidate” have been naïve. There having been no antiwar candidate, those believing in the system had to invent one in order to vote for one.

During his debate with Clinton on January 31, Obama declared, “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place. That’s the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next president of the United States. That’s what I intend to provide.” But maybe what we’re seeing is a war within Obama’s own mindset. Not a war, mind you, about whether or not to champion U.S. imperialism; if he had doubts about that he wouldn’t be a U.S. politician, or at least a highly successful one attracting the money and endorsements that he has. He is plainly a creature of U.S. capitalism and seeks to enhance its geopolitical advantages; that is a big part of his job description. The question is, will he encourage a different mindset through some bold center-left or at least innovative appointments to the remaining slots (there’s been some buzz about a gay Secretary of the Navy, for example), through some firm steps to expose and punish the crimes of the Bush administration, through a rapid withdrawal from Iraq overriding his commanders’ advice, through diplomatic engagement with Iran, etc.? Or will all the talk of change boil down to the mere fact of an African-American in the White House?

Obama’s staff and cabinet picks suggest a deep desire for acceptance by the existing power structure. It’s as though he’s bending over backwards to disabuse anyone of those nasty campaign rumors that he’s a cypto-Muslim, Arabophiliac, quasi-socialist or closet Marxist. It’s as though he’s actively soliciting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from Joe Lieberman, Karl Rove, Henry Kissinger, Lindsay Graham, Michael Goldfarb, Richard Perle and the other extreme reactionaries expressing their delight at his cabinet choices, and viewing such support as recognition of his own special gift as a healer and uniter. But how can he possibly expect to unite his antiwar base with his rightwing foreign policy team?

I wonder if there might be a dangerous narcissism here. Obama’s staff has hinted at his political strategy for explaining his remarkable metamorphosis from the First Black President to the First Center-Right Black President. He’s a second Lincoln, like that greatest of U.S. presidents, leading the nation out of a period of terrible division and crisis. Hence his leadership, like that of that valiant Republican from Illinois, must transcend petty rivalries.

Here’s where a book by a popular historian happens to come in handy. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Brilliance of Abraham Lincoln seems almost designed to confer legitimacy on Obama’s betrayal of his most ardent supporters’ expectations. Published in 2005, it had caught Obama’s attention during the campaign. He told Meet the Press’s Tim Russert in May 2008, “Awhile back there was a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called Team of Rivals, in which she talked about how Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was how can we get this country through this time of crisis? And I think that has to be the approach that one takes.” The book has actually been criticized for being a simplistic, tendentious treatment of Lincoln’s decisions and their impact on the fate of the union, but the academic point is irrelevant here. Politically, it’s very useful to place Obama in this mold, and to represent the protests of the lefties as petty and “divisive.”

Obama staffers argue that cabinet posts have been decided on the basis of  “credentials” and “expertise” rather than “ideology.” One can of course point out that Secretary of Defense Gates designated to continue in office has applied his expertise to the execution of a criminal imperialist war, and that Secretary of State-designate Clinton voted to authorize that war, based upon their ideologies, ideologies being things that all of us have.  “How can selecting only pro-war Cabinet members and advisers be justified on the grounds of ‘competence’ — as though one’s support for the War has nothing to do with competence?” asks Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald.

The bottom line: Millions took Obama seriously when he promoted himself as the candidate of change. Two days after his election, he made his first appointment: Rahm Emanuel—Washington insider, extreme Zionist, supporter of both the first and second Iraq Wars—as his chief of staff. Then a slough of center-right appointments, not a one “progressive Democrat” that would be recognized as such by any so self-defined. Meanwhile Obama’s magnanimous approval of the rehabilitation of Joe Lieberman, who was  allowed to keep his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Then the statement from Obama’s staff that the Justice Department under the new administration would not likely launch new criminal probes into Bush-era torture. All this in the interest of national reconciliation, pointedly excluding the “ideological” antiwar liberal-progressive Democrats, to say nothing of genuine anti-imperialists.

Curiously, he seems to have really stepped over the line not with a war-monger cabinet appointment, or ominous signal on foreign policy,  but choice of a cleric to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. The Rev. Rick Warren is of course an outspoken opponent of gay rights,  a campaigner against Prop. 8 that passed in California the same day that Obama was elected president. (He’s also agreed with Sean Hannity on Fox New that the U.S. out to “take out” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recalling televangelist Pat Robertson’s 2005 call for Hugo Chavez’s assassination.)

For many gay men and lesbians, Nov. 4 was a bittersweet day: they overwhelming favored Obama for president, and yet the setback to the cause of gay marriage was a bitter, unexpected blow. Obama’s choice of Warren for the national spotlight at his inauguration had to have been the product of considerable deliberation; it is a gesture to the religious right, a bid for (further) acceptance from the center-right.

It’s of course produced a firestorm. “Now it has officially gone too far,” writes Sarah Posner in the Nation. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, hitherto an Obama fan, announced, “We are left with the cold, hard political fact that this is a lose-lose proposition for Barack Obama, the first big mistake of his post-election politicking.  . .Obama’s supporters among centrists and progressives. . .just dumped a big bucket of tarnish all over Obama’s star power.”

Obama’s response to the criticism was very much in the “team of rivals” spirit: “It is no secret,” he told reporters somewhat haltingly, “that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. I would note that a couple of years ago I was invited to Rich Warren’s church to speak despite his awareness that I held views entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights…” So granting a grand public stage to someone who compares gay and lesbian unions to pedophilia and incest is a mere case of reciprocity, another friendly teaming of rivals for the national good…

Perhaps Obama and his team believe that his charisma is so great that he can ascend to office as a Bush Lite, arguing with the pundits that this is, after all, a “center-right nation,” and that he doesn’t need the support of those who organized to bring him into office. Maybe he thinks as he alienates one base or two, he can easily enough secure others. African-Americans, after all, weren’t generally behind him until spring of 2008. Maybe he’ll win over the “family values” and “bomb Iran” folks next. (Check out Bill Kristol’s latest Weekly Standard piece: “A President-Elect’s Progress,” praising Obama’s decision on Rev. Warren.)

Team of Rivals: The Political Brilliance of Barack Obama is a book waiting to be written.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu






Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu