Further weighing down the anticipated (by some, at least) report card post is the fact that the term hasn't started yet so we can't really judge the performances of the cabinet. Beyond being a rhetorical point, this is significant because we don't know what impact the players will have on the team captain and the team's performance. We don't know who will have the ear of the president, who will drive policy, in what direction, or what events will happen that will force changes or realignments of policy. Elucidating these points, Harvard University's Stephen Walt presents a reasonable case for witholding judgement on Obama's foreign policy picks. The question before us is this - if we can't yet judge the individuals' performance, can we judge the individual who chose the individuals?
In answering this, I'm casting aside a few arguments: Forget about the beltway etiquette that says that a president should be afforded the courtesy of his cabinet selections; that etiquette saw the Democrats approve Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Bolton, etc, each of which was a shameful confirmation with regrettable consequences (understatement). Forget about the benefit of the doubt - these are the big leagues and I doubt everyone who has risen to this level of political power. Forget about the politics of the picks which explain that certain selections were token picks to allow the Administration to present a diverse face, and forget about the politics of picking people in order to guard against future political attacks. At what point do we move beyond the politics? ever?
So discarding these obstructions to judgment on cabinet selections, I see no reason why we shouldn't look at all Barack Obama's selections and criticize or praise him for them. He may not have been sworn in yet, but his presidency is well under way, and therefore open to debate - open even to lefty, hack bloggers like me who haven't done enough research. I'm inspired by John Nichols' article for The Progressive, How to Push Obama, which reviews Obama's progressive roots and his migration to the center, and suggests a strategy for pushing him leftward through reasoned, proactive opposition:
The way to influence Obama and his Administration is to speak not so much to him as to America. Get out ahead of the new President, and of his spin-drive communications team. Highlight the right appointees and the right responses to deal with the challenges that matter most. Don’t just critique, but rather propose. Advance big ideas and organize on their behalf; identify allies in federal agencies, especially in Congress, and work with them to dial up the pressure for progress. Don’t expect Obama or his aides to do the left thing. Indeed, take a lesson from rightwing pressure groups in their dealings with Republican administrations and recognize that it is always better to build the bandwagon than to jump on board one that is crafted with the tools of compromise.
I may not live up to this (particularly in the proposing alternatives department), but I reserve my right to hack away (and hopefully open a forum for the readers of this blog).
OK, let's get going. This is a long one. Keep in mind that this is a report card of Obama's cabinet selection choices, not a report card on the performances of the cabinet members - they all get incompletes so far. This also shouldn't be read as a prediction about how Obama is going to rate as a president; it's just an honest taking-to-task of the team with whom he has chosen to surround himself, and unless he turns out to be the greatest micro-manager of all time, they're going to have a big impact. To start you out, here is a mostly-commentary-free biographical breakdown of the team from Huffington Post. And without further ado, here's your VTK Team of Rivals Report Card:
- VP: Joe Biden - B+ - (not sure if VP is cabinet or cabinet-level, but Huff puts him here so I'll follow suit) - clearly a good pick by Obama insofar as Biden helped him to get elected (which is a good thing). Joe had more Joe Sixpack cred than the Hockey Mom or the Joe the Plumber in the end. Am I the biggest Joe fan in the world? No, but I'm not a hater either. It was a smart, effective pick by Obama and I think Biden will sensibly scale back the role of the VP in US governance, which will further highlight Cheney's criminal power usurpation. I wish he were a little less hawkish.
- Sec. of State: Hillary Clinton - C- - readers of this blog know where I stand on Hillary. I think she's a hawk, I think her foreign policy experience has been greatly exaggerated, and I think there were better people for this prestigious post. How about the junior senator from MA, John Kerry? This is a purely political pick and as such, it's irritating to me. But she's far from incompetent. Time will tell how she does.
- Sec. of the Treasury: Timothy Geithner - C? - Here's where my ignorance comes into play. I don't really know anything about Geithner. I know even less about what the right diagnosis for what the country's economic illness is. So I'm about to hit the internet and search my favorite radical lefty sites for an unbiased assessment that will surely leave me outraged. Please hold [insert elevator music]. Ok, I'm back. And still unsure what to think. I found an informative discussion on DemocracyNow!, in which Naomi Klein calls the selections of Geithner and Larry Summers (director of National Economic Council) "a profound disappointment". She calls Obama hypocritical for picking them after all his campaign criticism of deregulation: they "played key roles during very important economic crises in other countries, in Russia, during the Asian financial crisis, during the Mexican peso crisis. And when these countries were suffering a profound economic crisis created by deregulation, they preached more deregulation, more privatization and—this is key—they preached economic austerity to disastrous results."
The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner agrees but is less pessimistic: "I can point to a couple of silver linings here. Number one, in Obama’s own speeches on the subject, he’s been very much on the side of stringent re-regulation of financial institutions as the price of recapitalizing them and also as the necessary policy. There’s a very good person who is going to be in charge of the specifics of what banking regulation should be going forward. That’s Dan Tarullo, who’s one of the two or three real progressives at fairly senior levels inside the Obama administration ... I do think Geithner is a competent technocrat. He’s not an investment banker himself. He’s been a civil servant for almost all of his career. And secondly, when he was pursuing these failed policies, he was doing so as part of a threesome that included Bernanke and Paulson. And of the three, Geithner was the most inclined to tough regulation as the price of bailout."
Amy Goodman hedges Kuttner's optimism by reading a piece from William Greider in The Nation, with which Kuttner agrees: "Geithner was busy executing the government’s massive rescue of Citicorp--the very banking behemoth that Geithner and Summers helped to create back in the Clinton years, along with Federal Reserve [chairman] Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, Clinton’s economics guru. Now Rubin is himself a Citicorp executive and his bank is now being saved by his old protégé (Geithner) with the taxpayers’ money ... Geithner has been a central player in the deal-making, from Bear Stearns to AIG to Citi. The strategy has not only failed, it has arguably made things worse as savvy market players saw through the contradictions and rushed out to dump more bank stocks.”
Read (or listen to) the whole discussion here, but it seems that they're more concerned about Summers than Geithner. Lastly, is it notable that stocks soared when the news broke about his appointment as Treasury Secretary? Should we trust the market? Fuck if I know. William Greider provides his opinion in the aforementioned article: "[Geithner has] been seen as a weak and compliant regulator of Wall Street firms, someone who did not seem [sic] the storm coming. Occasionally, Geithner would anguish publicly about the accumulating time bombs like credit derivatives and urge bankers to do something, but he did not use his supervisory powers to compel action. In bailout negotiations with Wall Street titans, Geithner and the Federal Reserve were spun around like a top more than once. No wonder the stock markets rallied explosively when they heard Geithner would be their new boss in Washington. They think he is their guy." So, what should we expect? As I said - fuck if I know.
- Sec. of Defense: Robert Gates - D+ - My biggest problem here is that Obama ran as the change candidate on a consistent message of opposition to the Iraq War and consistent criticism of Bush and his foreign policy, and then he decides to invite the Republican (served under both Bushes) Secretary of War (of two wars) to continue on as the head of the Pentagon. I don't want to hear about the politics of this pick, the wisdom of ensuring a smooth transition, the success of the surge, or the relative moderation of Gates compared to his predecessor. The change here shouldn't have been the decision not to change. There must have been capable, qualified candidates who would have signaled a decisive change in the bellicose direction of this country. I don't accept that this is a "defensive" move to prevent Republicans from criticising whatever happens in Iraq while waxing nostalgic about the success of the surge. Frankly, I'm a little sick of hearing about the success of the Surge. So too, I imagine, are the friends and family of the 40 people killed in a suicide bomb in Iraq on Sunday or the friends and family of the 23 people killed in a suicide bomb in Iraq on Friday. So too, I imagine, is former US-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi who recently described the Bush Administration's policies as an "utter failure".
- Attorney General: Eric Holder - B - Let's not let the fact that the Republicans have chosen him to be the subject of their token nomination fight define him as a leftist. He may be, but the fight in the Senate is about the GOP fighting Obama, not Holder. And it's on. Holder's a former Clintonista. On the basis of that alone, I'm tempted to label him a centrist, but I'm wary of assigning guilt by association. The conservative US News and World Report calls him part of the cabinet's liberal core and writes that Democratic officials are saying that he will "serve as a liberal advocate on social issues important to minorities, feminists, abortion-rights advocates, organized labor, and gay-rights activists." Clearly, it's relative, but let's hope they're right. Was there a better pick available? Don't know.
- Sec. of the Interior: Ken Salazar - F - In case you didn't know what the Secretary of Interior did, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, "As the overseer of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Minerals Management Services, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Endangered Species Act, the Secretary of the Interior is [the] most important position in the protection of America's lands, waters, and endangered species." Here are a few bullets from the CBD about Salazar:
- voted against increased fuel efficiency standards for the U.S. automobile fleet.
- voted to allow offshore oil drilling along Florida's coast.
- voted to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to ignore global warming impacts in their water development projects.
- voted against the repeal of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil.
- voted to support subsidies to ranchers and other users of public forest and range lands.
- threatened to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when its scientists determined the black-tailed prairie dog may be endangered.
- fought efforts to increase protection for endangered species and the environment in the Farm Bill.
Some would describe the Environmental community's response as mixed. DemocracyNow! hosted a debate between CBD's Kieran Suckling and the National Audubon Society's Brian Moore. Salazar sounds like a fox in the henhouse to me. As far as Obama picking him? Politics - "thanks for voting for me, Colorado; thanks for your support, West." Crappy pick for a crappy reason.
- Sec. of Agriculture: Tom Vilsack - D+ - I don't know much about Agriculture or Vilsack, so I'm going back to the internet. Ronnie Cummins writes for Counterpunch that this pick "sent a chill through the sustainable food and farming community" DemocracyNow! hosted a debate between Cummins and Moore. You decide. Counterpunch points out that this is part of larger divisions within the environmental community. The Vilsack pick also notably drew the criticism of food writer/activist Michael Pollan. I dislike Pollan. But only because he's usually right. And I want to eat cheeseburgers all day.
- Sec. of Commerce: Bill Richardson - INC - He recently withdrew himself from nomination due to untimely questions about some of his contributors. Too bad. This may have gotten a decent grade from me.
- Sec. of Labor: Hilda Solis - A - This from John Nichols of the Nation in his 2008 superlatives list: MOST VALUABLE CABINET PICK Hilda Solis: It has been a long time since the United States had a Secretary of Labor who had a record of walking picket lines. That's what makes California Congresswoman Hilda Solis, Obama's pick to fill this Cabinet post, so remarkable. ... She is the right person for this job, and her selection serves as the single best signal from Obama that he intends to serve as a pro-worker president. Let's hope that Solis is allowed to renew a Labor Department that has been neglected – and disempowered -- by Democratic and Republican presidents.
- Sec. of Health & Human Services: Tom Daschle - A - I'm hopeful about this pick and Daschle's desire and ability to push progressive change in American health care. Perhaps the best way to highlight Daschle's liberal credibility is to point out the vitriolic reaction of the Christian Conservative Right: Daschle has a consistent pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, pro-judicial activist voting record. While in the Senate, Daschle voted against schools requiring voluntary prayer; voted no on banning human cloning; voted no to prohibit flag burning; voted no on school vouchers in Washington, DC; voted no on permitting drilling in ANWR and much more ... Daschle was a key leader in blocking Bush’s judicial nominees. During the 2003-2004 session, Daschle and his liberal cronies blocked 10 of Bush’s nominees from getting up or down votes in the Senate ... Daschle was honored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) for being the “architect of the defeat of the Federal Marriage Amendment” in the Senate ... “Daschle can be expected to gut any pro-life, pro-family policies in HHS and will aggressively push his pro-abortion, pro-homosexual agenda,” said TVC Executive Director Andrea Lafferty.
- Sec. of Housing & Urban Development: Shaun Donovan - B? - I haven't found much reaction online worth quoting. I don't know anything about him, but he hasn't sparked any outrage so far as I can tell and there are a lot of people on the internet looking to be outraged at something. I'll give it an ignorant "B".
- Sec. of Transportation: Ray LaHood - C - WTF do I know (or care) about Transportation or Ray LaHood. Well I do take the subway frequently and drive on the Pike and I95 occasionally. And I do know that LaHood is a Republican from Illinois - from the same district Lincoln was from. Sounds like Obama killed two birds with one stone: a political pick (allowing him to present himself as bi-partisan) and another Lincoln connection to remind people that he's the next Lincoln. Didn't you hear? Obama's the next Lincoln. Anyways, environmental advocates Friends of the Earth had this to say: While his overall record on energy and environment issues is poor, LaHood has in recent years broken with many in his party to support crucial investments in passenger rail and public transportation, and he is a member of the Congressional Bike Caucus. These are reasons to hope that he may be open to the visionary transportation policy that is needed to move our country forward.
- Sec. of Energy: Steven Chu - A - Alright, I'll give Obama one benefit of the doubt pick. I don't know Chu but he sounds alright. He won the Nobel Prize in physics. Andrew Revkin, award-winning science reporter with the New York Times, had this to say on DemocracyNow!: [Chu] knows the science, and he knows it pretty deeply, and he knows how hard it is to get sometimes an idea from a laboratory and to become the new norm for energy ... in the last five years or so, Dr. Chu went to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to create—and he came there with this—his mandate for that lab was that energy is our new frontier. And he started to develop programs there that are very much aimed at trying to sort of have big breakthroughs on non-polluting forms of energy that we’ll need as the world heads toward nine billion people, more or less, with everyone wanting a decent life. We need more energy than we have now, even if you set aside the climate problem. But when you add the climate challenge with these building greenhouse gases, that creates this even bigger imperative. So he’s got the—he clearly has the grounding in both the science and how the science has to translate into products. You know, how do you interface with private sector? How do you make this all happen? So I think the combination shows some possibility of breaking through.
- Sec. of Education: Arne Duncan - C+? - I don't have kids and haven't been involved in any type of organized education for about 14 years. I don't know who Arne Duncan is. Here's another DemocracyNow! debate (which seems more like a tepid conversation really). Lefty Fireballer Greg Palast "slams" the pick.
- Sec. of Veterans' Affairs: Eric Shinseki - A - because he was right. From DemocracyNow!: Shinseki made headlines in February 2003 when he testified before Congress that the US would need several hundred thousand soldiers to stabilize Iraq after the invasion. At the time, Shinseki was Army chief of staff. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking Pentagon officials publicly rebuked him, while insisting that Iraqis would welcome the Americans as liberators.
- Sec. of Homeland Security: Janet Napolitano - C - Napolitano appears to be drawing an array of reviews from all sides. This liberal calls it a "terrific choice" and this conservative rag doesn't like it. This liberal academic is concerned about her, saying "on the state level, she pushed some of the most right-wing agendas on immigration enforcement. She went full speed ahead with the Bush agenda to move immigration enforcement from federal to local hands." And this conservative Arizona blogger finds a silver lining in that her nomination virtually assures that AZ's 2 senators will remain Republican for another 7 years (not to mention that her replacement as governor will be chosen by AZ GOP Secretary of State). And of course, centrist PA governor Ed Rendell said she'd be perfect for the job because she has no life. So, is she a hawk? Relativity strikes again. I'm thinking I would have preferred a less hawkish person - with a life - to head security of my homeland. But then again, do we even know what Obama has in store for the Homeland Security Department?
- United Nations Ambassador: Susan Rice - C - According to DN!: She opposed the US invasion of Iraq but has advocated for military action in case of humanitarian crisis. Two years ago, Rice co-authored an article advocating for US attacks against Sudan. She wrote that the United States should consider unilaterally striking Sudanese airfields, aircraft and other military assets. Rice wrote, “If the United States fails to gain U.N. support, we should act without it.” Is that really the best Obama could have done in selecting his ambassador to the UN? Really? Maybe not as bad as Bush picking Bolton, but not great.
- Environmental Protection Agency: Lisa P. Jackson - C? - I know nothing about Jackson but it appears that she's getting mixed reviews from "the left" - mixed between wary and negative. This isn't exactly a glowing report from the Huffington Post. Nor is this from dailykos.
And roughly 3200 words later, there's your report card, Part One. Coming soon: Part Two - Cabinet Rank Members & Top Officials. Find out the VTK take on such fantastic/outrageous selections as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, National Security Adviser James Jones, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, and National Economic Council Larry Summers.
Teaser: Dennis Blair aided the perpetrators of 1999 church killings in East Timor. (part 2 of that report)