Time for Obama to build a real team of rivals
At the start of the 2008 primary season, Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, got a call from Barack Obama. “He talked to me… about the book,” Goodwin told Politico, “and then throughout the campaign he kept talking about it, how he would want to put people around him who would argue with him, have a range of opinions.”
So as White House budget director Peter Orszag prepares to become the first cabinet member to leave the administration next month, and rumors of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s imminent departure make headlines on two continents, the president is now presented with an opportunity to embrace some of Lincoln’s genius. With one -- or two -- positions opening up in Obama’s administration, the talk on Pennsylvania Avenue (and on Wall Street, Lake Shore Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard) ought to focus on the thus-far unfulfilled promise of America’s top Chicago White Sox fan to appoint some Cubs to his inner circle.
The president might start by pulling his presidency away from the Clintonesque path it has followed remarkably closely, especially regarding economic issues. In his review of Obama’s Challenge, Robert Kuttner’s new book, Ari Berman explains:
Rather than breaking with the failures of the past, Obama largely reinforced Washington's entrenched establishment. The book’s lead villain is Robert Rubin, the former treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and Goldman Sachs alum who contaminated Clinton's administration with deregulatory fervor, helped run Citigroup into the ground and managed to emerge from the economic collapse with his prestigious reputation somehow unsullied, as two of his protégés, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, assumed top economic posts in the Obama administration.
And in the book, Kuttner writes, “Instead of the team-of-rivals model that Obama had often invoked, Obama hired a team of Rubins.” For all his rhetoric about breaking with the past and injecting change into Washington, the president’s response to the Great Recession drew upon the ideas of the very men who had worked to cause the problem in the first place. Instead of broadening the debate by bringing in outsiders, Obama relied on the entrenched ideas of Summers and Geithner. The predictable result was reform that, though more progressive and populist than anticipated, still, as Zach Carter described in The Nation, “won't fundamentally change the relationship between banks and society.”
As foreign policy goes, Obama’s policies in Afghanistan haven’t been as much of a change from his predecessor’s as a slight course correction. Until yesterday, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, recently revealed as a real-life B. A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, ran the show there, and the overall framework of Obama’s vision remains disconcertingly similar to George W. Bush’s. Last fall, Vice President Joe Biden garnered attention for “standing alone” against Obama’s Afghanistan counterinsurgency plan. Yet as I wrote at the time, Biden’s eyebrow-raising idea, though technically a dissent, was “questionable; it advance[d] the doctrine of preventive military action that would violate the sovereignty of an American ally and that in the past has resulted in the death of innocent citizens.” This is worth revisiting, considering how much attention Biden’s “dissent” received, including a spot on the cover of Newsweek. If this is what passed, and continues to pass, for rivalry in the administration, we’re in trouble.
This is an ideal time for Obama to revisit his original team-of-rivals promise. He should now consider adding some new thinkers, unbound by the Washington consensus on economic or national security, to his inner circle.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
| June 24, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories: vanden Heuvel | Tags: Katrina vanden Heuvel
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