Trouble on the Left

Illustration for article titled Trouble on the Left

This week Barack Obama will choose his environmental team, the group of people responsible for dealing with everything from climate change to energy policy, and concern is building in some Democratic circles about whether this is the point at which he will finally appoint a prominent liberal to his Cabinet.


After a swift set of appointments that firmly established, some say reinforced, Obama's centrist bona fides, lefties are grumbling (most quietly for fear of seeming intemperate and/or ungracious) that having fought the good fight they are being left out. "He has confirmed what our suspicions were by surrounding himself with a centrist to right cabinet," Tim Carpenter, national director of the Progressive Democrats of America told Politico, in a story about the growing unease among some in the party. "But we do hope that before it's all over we can get at least one authentic progressive appointment."

David Corn, who leads the Mother Jones news bureau in Washington, used a piece in the Washington Post on Sunday to detail the disappointment Obama's appointments have so far generated among liberals: "The more things change, the more they stay . . . well, you know," Corn wrote. "And looking at President-elect Barack Obama's top appointments, it's easy to wonder whether convention has triumphed over change—and centrists over progressives."

This may just be a timing issue because sooner or later this was going to happen; the left was eventually going to make demands on Obama that he would not be able to meet. The question at this point is how long the preternaturally self-righteous onlookings on either side of the argument can contain themselves in the interest of party unity. Eventually there will be a debate about who is owed what and what it means for the future of the party. Moderates want credit for winning in place likes Virginia and Indiana; liberals want credit for having been right all along about George Bush, about Iraq, about Hillary Clinton. Obama's tasks will be to keep the two factions happy, not so much with each other, but with him. So far the moderates are taken care of.

Obama should get the benefit of the doubt from liberals, initially, at least, because he has been so successful in slaying so many iconic lefty dragons; Bush, McCain, Palin, Hillary and Bill Clinton. And he should get extra credit for being so efficient in assembling his cabinet: Competence can be very seductive, even to the most ideological.

Frankly, even the liberals must understand that there is nothing that Obama has said or done thus far that has surprised anyone. They entered into a small conspiracy of silence to get him elected, but they knew well his centrist/compromiser tendencies. In his Meet the Press interview last weekend, he spelled them out again.

"Just in terms of our appointments, I am very proud of the speed with which we have started to put together our core economic team, our national security team, but also the excellence of the candidates," he said. "And I, I think that it's an indication of part of the change I was talking about during the campaign, an emphasis on competence, an emphasis on people who are non-ideological and pragmatic and just want to do business."


Liberals want to do business; not with everyone, but they expect to be able to do business with Obama. What they are wondering is whether he will want to do business with them.

"With these hawkish, [Clinton Treasury Secretary Bob] Rubin-esque, middle-of-the-road picks, has Obama abandoned the folks who brought him to the dance?" Corn wonders out loud about the Cabinet.


Those lefty jitters gained a little more traction this week, when they generated a heated response from senior Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand on the Huffington Post. Hildy's very pointed advice to the liberals: Not now; the problems we face are too big for us to get bogged down in ideological sniping. Hildebrand makes the point that Obama was elected by a wide cross section of Americans to be president of all the people, not just the left.

The worry on the left is that he will worry about appeasing everyone else, while taking them for granted, or worse, using liberals as a foil to shore up his centrists' credentials.


Obama has made the point that he is not done picking, so it may be again just a matter of timing. It may be that despite their early disappointment, liberals ought to heed the words of Atticus Finch, after Tom Robinson's murder conviction in To Kill a Mockingbird: "It's not time to worry yet …We're not through yet."

Terence Samuel is deputy editor to The Root.