CHICAGO – President-elect Barack Obama spent the campaign fighting the notion that he’s an unabashed liberal.
Now he can point to Exhibit A: a Cabinet that’s a middle-of-the-roaders’ dream.
Consider the scorecard: The centrist Democratic Leadership Council claims ties with half the group. Movement progressives count a single one, Calfornia Rep. Hilda Solis at Labor, a union favorite.
But if Obama gives with Solis, he takes away with former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a free-trade advocate for trade representative, no union favorite.
Classic Obama, some grumbled.
“We just hoped the political diversity would have been stronger,” said Tim Carpenter, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America. “We see a lot of recycled Clinton folks and he gets a strong ‘D’ on the policy side. We hope he will hustle them to be more progressive.”
In a town where personnel drives policy, don’t bet on it, others say.
“Barack Obama has never made any bones about it: He is a moderate,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a moderate public policy think tank. “People who ignored that did so at their peril.”
Obama’s Cabinet, which will be rounded out Friday with formal announcements for labor and transportation, is politically moderate and ethnically diverse. There are Ivy Leaguers and hoopsters, loyalists to Hillary Rodham Clinton and longtime allies of Obama, and Midwesterners, Westerners and New Yorkers. Texans filled 43’s White House, but not 44’s, with just one in Kirk.
And for a guy who complained plenty about broken politics, roughly half his picks are current or former officeholders.
Whatever critics think of it, he did it fast – the fastest in modern times, according to the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, an organization of academics who study presidential transitions. Obama has said he wants to hit the ground running, with the country in recession. He’s getting on a plane Saturday for Christmas in Hawaii, which has a way of focusing the mind, too.
The Cabinet includes 15 executive departments, including homeland security, health and human services and defense. Other appointees, such as director of the Environmental Protection Agency, White House chief of staff and ambassador to the United Nations, will be given Cabinet-level rank.
A few more notable features of Obama’s Cabinet:
Team of rivals?
Sort of, political observers say.
Obama has long spoken of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, who appointed three former rivals for the Republican nomination to his Cabinet.
“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?’” Obama told an audience in May. “That has to be the approach that one takes, whether it's vice president or cabinet, whoever.”
So how did he do?
Obama one-upped Lincoln with a Cabinet that includes four primary election rivals: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at State, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at Commerce, and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) as vice president. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack at agriculture was briefly in the primary too.
Vilsack later served as co-chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Solis also endorsed Clinton.
Obama plans to install a Republican, Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, at transportation, although he is considered a moderate. The president-elect also plans to keep President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates.
In terms of policy, however, there isn’t much daylight between Obama’s Cabinet picks, said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The group can be expected to argue vigorously, but ultimately understands the decision-making lies with Obama, he said.
Left versus center
In recent years, the Democratic Leadership Council struggled to attract a single presidential candidate to its national convention, while an annual gathering of liberal bloggers saw its cache rise.
Their fortunes have been reversed.
Al From, the DLC’s founder and chief executive officer of the DLC, identified ties with eight Cabinet members, including a former chairman (Vilsack), a former convention chairman (Ken Salazar at interior) and convention keynote speakers (Richardson, incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel).
“Obama made a big promise that he was going to transcend the old politics and create a post-partisan politics,” From said. “The first test of that was to reach out and appoint people to the cabinet that moved beyond party, and I think he has done that.”
Labor’s not loving Kirk, and no one is mistaking Timothy Geithner at treasury and Lawrence Summers as Obama’s top White House economic adviser for union guys. But still, the cabinet will be “night and day compared to the last eight years,” said Jonathan Tasini, executive director of the Labor Research Association, a New York nonprofit that works with trade unions.
On civil rights, on the rule of law, women’s issues, gay rights, “this cabinet is going to be progressive compared to the last eight years,” Tasini said. “On economic issues, there is a little more nuance. On that issue, Hilda Solis is the progressive and then you slide to people who are much more market oriented. It’s on the economic issues that are much more of a concern.”
Greg Denier, communications director of Change to Win, a coalition of labor groups, said despite some difference of opinion with Obama on several appointees, he did what he said he would do.
“It is a very diverse cabinet in terms of the range of political opinions and backgrounds,” Denier said. “Certainly Change to Win would not have picked every individual he picked.”
Love for elected officials
Obama repeatedly faulted a broken system in Washington, but he filled his Cabinet with more than a few of those Beltway insiders.
“Clearly president-elect Obama has a preference for people who have faced the voters and gone through many of the same experiences that he did,” said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Hillary Clinton clearly knows foreign policy but you don’t make her that because of her expertise. It’s because he saw in her in those debates, a toughness, a tenacity and intelligence that he wanted in that job, and that’s the refrain in this Cabinet, people who have faced and been responsive to voters, but not smacking of hacks, which is obviously a fine line.”
He picked three House members, two senators and a former senator, two governors and a former governor, and one former mayor.
David Sirota, a progressive blogger and journalist, called it an “Establishment Cabinet.”
“Obama has always engaged in a careful dance with the establishment,” Sirota said. “He largely plays by its rules and avoids frontal challenges to the power structure. So the fact that he’s appointed an Establishment Cabinet isn’t shocking.
“The more important question is whether his cabinet appointments represent a policy shift. That is, will the ideologies of the personnel being put in place be the ideologies of the administration, or will Obama be successful in making these Washington ideologues the vehicle for his own new policies?” Sirota asked.
Keeping pace on diversity
Obama didn’t make a big deal of it like Bill Clinton did in 1992, promising a Cabinet that looked like America. But Obama has continued what is now normal for a presidential transition, assembling an ethnically and racially diverse Cabinet.
Six of the fifteen department secretaries are people of color. Three others -- at the United Nations, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. trade representative -- are as well, meaning a total of four African Americans, three Hispanics, and two Asian Americans.
“He did phenomenal on ethnic diversity,” Carpenter said. “I’d give him an A-.”
Because Obama has not yet finalized which positions rank as Cabinet-level, it is hard to determine a final percentage. But he appears to be keeping pace with the Bush and Clinton administrations.
“With some Cabinets, you get a sense of filling in the boxes as you get to the end. What’s struck me about the Cabinet is that it is hard to find choices that say, ‘He picked her because she’s a woman, or he picked him because he’s black,’ ” Ornstein said. “These choices make sense because they have savvy and experience. It’s tough to get balance and diversity without making it look like you are trying to get balance and diversity. I think he’s done pretty damn well.”
Still not satisfied
Obama made a big splash by appointing Clinton as secretary of state – pleasing legions of her female supporters – but some groups are saying he’s light on women.
Women Count, a political action committee that aids women candidates, sent an email alert Wednesday urging its supporters to call the transition team and demand more female representation in the Cabinet, which it said fails to improve on Bush’s record and falls below Clinton’s.
Obama has appointed five women to Cabinet and top agency jobs, although he has announced quite a few more for White House staff positions.
“We urge the President-elect and his transition team to act now to improve their record of commitment to naming women to senior positions in the new Administration,” the alert read. “It's not too late. Such a lack of progress for women underscores the need for real change - now.”
In terms of Southerners, the region delivered some of Obama’s sweetest electoral victories, but he hasn’t given back with an appointment. The West made out well, landing four Cabinet posts, and a half-dozen hail from the Midwest.
And not surprisingly, that includes three from Illinois – home to Emanuel, LaHood at Transportation and Arne Duncan at Education.