I’ve been reading reactions to Obama’s cabinet picks with amusement. On one hand you have conservative commentators that seem genuinely surprised that he is not dismantling the whole military and on the other hand you have liberal commentators upset that he hasn’t instituted an instant reversal of all our policies. I don’t get either camp as he never claimed he would do either and it just shows people like to fall in love with their own shadow.
But those camps aren’t that interesting. What is interesting to me is the camp that actually paid attention to what Obama was talking about but question whether he is carrying through with it. After all, how much Change can there be with the picks he’s made?
If he’s a good leader, a lot. On this point I have to disagree with Tony’s assertion that Obama is using Triangulation. Triangulation is a cynical political ploy that sets interest groups against each other, and you have power simply because you appease enough individual interests that no one can successfully build up enough support against you. It’s about making groups feel a false sense of empowerment if you need their support, but once you have it in the bag you can switch and pay attention to some other group. It’s just political exploitation, but has the side effect of a grab bag of policies that on average most people support so it’s not necessarily all bad. On the other hand, it is inherently lacking vision.
I don’t believe that Obama lacks vision as he has often said he wants to be a transformational president. On that account, I don’t think you can read much into his picks’ histories but have to focus more on their character and strengths/weaknesses. There is just the assumption that the Presidency has been reduced to picking people that agree with you and letting them run rampant, and to be fair this is what has happened for at least the past five Presidents. However, a real leader is not someone that can simply select talented people for roles, but is one that can make them fit in a way where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
A transformational vision is by definition one that looks beyond past paradigms but if it is successful it needs to use the current system for guidance and to provide a semblance of stability during the transition. This requires having experts prevent things from falling apart as you implement changes slowly but surely by taking advantage of outside voices, political cajoling and uplifting guidance. I ran across this interesting perspective about Al Gore and Obama, and it highlights the message I am trying to convey generally.
In my last post I played into the false dichotomy of the common wisdom about which camp Obama would listen to more. But once I was done it was obvious that the way Obama has structured his economic team the answer is he is going to move towards the Volcker position while trying to balance short term needs that will prevent the current system from collapsing too suddenly. That is quite the task, and it is replicated in his foreign policy picks as well. In fact the only one I don’t see it in is his AG, which is almost an exact surrogate for Obama’s professed “true” vision and I anticipate that will undergo the fastest changes in policy.
I have been a strong Obama support for many years and I always found it amusing that everyone was focused on his campaign skills and asked “Where’s the Beef?” because I always felt that his campaigning was by far his weakest skillset. However, both his campaign tactics and (my reading into) his governance strategy rely on the fact that he is thinking many steps ahead and in a way that is foreign to political common wisdom. The short term decisions are just used to fill in the gaps and each one is done as a piece in the greater whole. The interesting thing to watch is what will happen when the enormous complexity of our world causes his plans to derail, and on that he is going to need a lot of help to govern both because he’ll need to be kept honest and he’ll need support from the People.