Cabinet Limitations

There’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing over the ideological makeup of the Obama cabinet as it comes together, specifically that it lacks progressives, and this signals that Obama isn’t going to be all that progressive. This is, I think, a very bad way of understanding cabinet positions and staff around the President.

On the one hand, there’s political considerations involved. Unseemly as it may be, politics matters in policy, and Presidents ignore that at their own peril. So, for example, the argument for keeping Gates at defense is that, if he’s on board with Obama’s withdrawl plans, having a Republican in place gives you a measure of political cover for the plan. And if it works out that way, it’s very good politics. Similarly, you want people in place who know how to both manage federal beuracracies, and twist arms on the hill.

Also, it’s also important to get past the person, and look at the policy. Larry Summers might not be generally regarded as a flaming progressive, but he has been advocating real progressive policies in response to the economic crisis. Similarly, Tom Daschle is very progressive on healthcare reform. If “centrist” technocrats produce progressive policy outcomes, are we really going to quibble about who was put in place? Do you care if your #9 hitter hits a grand slam instead of your clean up guy?

But most important, it’s very important to remember that an adviser is only worth as much as the person being advised will allow. Colin Powell may have been Bush’s first Secretary of State, but it as pretty clear that the President wasn’t paying much attention to him. Thus, who Obama has the most faith in will play a very large role in how he’s advised. And maybe most importantly of all, Obama is not Bush. That is to say, he’s not an incurious fool who surrounds himself with people who agree with him all of the time. He’s someone who has given serious thought to issues and policies, has well formed opinions and ideas about them, and likes to be around people who will challenge his assumptions, point out flaws in his reasoning, and so on. So it’s entirely possible that the inclusion of a lot of “moderates” is evidence the Obama himself is very much a progressive, and as such he doesn’t feel like he needs a slew of like minded advisers around him.

Now, none of this is meant to be taken as some definitive statement that I have the key insight to Barack Obama’s administration. I don’t, and neither do you. And that’s the point; unless Obama explains the thought process going into every pick, we really can’t speculate as to what might have factored. And as such, we ought to focus less on the who, and more on the what. Because at the end of the day, the goal is creating sound policy. Who exactly does that doesn’t much matter.