Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The change we voted for

As President-Elect Barack Obama has rolled out his Cabinet and advisers on an almost daily basis, discontent has smoldered among some in the leftist aspect of the Democratic base, grumbling about the absence of progressives among the Obama ministers. That hungry part of the base was placated last week when the stock market showed great signs of life, with the greatest four-day point gain in generations.

But more recently, they’ve grown restive again with the news (long since leaked) that Sen. Hillary Clinton was to be named the next secretary of state.

On Monday at transition headquarters in Chicago, Obama officially introduced his national security team: Eric Holder, former deputy attorney general, nominated to be U.S. Attorney General; former NATO supreme commander and Marine Gen. James Jones, named national security adviser; Susan Rice, former deputy secretary of state for African affairs, named U.N. Ambassador (now a Cabinet-level position again); and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, tapped to be Secretary of Homeland Security.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a member of the Bush administration, was asked to stay on.

“At a time when we face an unprecedented transition amidst two wars, I have asked Robert Gates to continue as Secretary of Defense, and I'm pleased that he's accepted,” the president-elect said.

And … as expected, Obama names Hillary Clinton the next secretary of state.

“I have known Hillary Clinton as a friend, a colleague, a source of counsel, and as a campaign opponent. She possesses an extraordinary intelligence and toughness, and a remarkable work ethic. I am proud that she will be our next Secretary of State. She is an American of tremendous stature who will have my complete confidence; who knows many of the world's leaders; who will command respect in every capitol; and who will clearly have the ability to advance our interests around the world.”

With this the fire drills began. Progressives, activists, reporters, bloggers, pundits, people who ought to know better started running around, hair on fire, howling about the absence of transformation promised during the campaign, in some variation of a stock market dictum: Grumble on the rumor, scream on the news. “Gates? Clinton? Where is the change?” they scream.

While there’s justifiable concern as to how these disparate talents will mesh, it’s premature, and frankly just silly, to suggest that the Cabinet-level officers and others named so far and the others to come don’t represent change. What they point to again is our collective inability to catch up to Obama, our new president-elect, the smartest guy in the room, and the change we voted for.

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Some of the most profound and meaningful things we experience — in science, in music and culture, in every manifestation of life — aren’t the result of brand new, sui generis devices, processes or events. They’re not as much new in themselves as they are the inventive recombination of the familiar, the recognizable — that which we’ve previously experienced. The Obama Cabinet, as it is emerging, may be another such example of change within the context of continuity.

The combination of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — that blend of Experience and Change dangled in front of us for months during the campaign season — has actually happened. And it’s happened in ways that may prove more effective than if Clinton were the Vice President-Elect.

Last night, talking to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Madeline Albright put many things in perspective — especially the potential for creative tension within the Obama administration, and the ways in which that tension is change, and the positive kind, at that.

“This is a pretty dramatic break” with the past, Albright said. “What you have are people who have thought a great deal about 21st-century problems, who have views about the issues that are out there … very knowledgeable … that are prepared to give a variety of opinions to the president-elect — I think that’s what so interesting — instead of the kind of groupthink we’ve had for the last eight years.”

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Part of this drumbeat of discontent of journalists and others isn’t to be taken seriously. It’s the natural contrariness of the 24/7 media, its love of clash and drama, as well as a populist restlessness intensified by life in the Internet era.

Count on it: If Barack Obama had swept in and named a Cabinet of relative unknowns and innocents to the ways of politics and government, the punditburo would be up in arms about Obama making too much change too fast, about that Cabinet being too inexperienced, about Team Obama not having a “deep bench,” about the next president fielding a team that was “too light” to get across the goal line.

What’s a president-elect with a mandate to do? You stick by your guns. You dance with the meme what brung you to the party.

And that’s about where Barack Obama is right now. As he rolls out the rest of his Cabinet, we probably shouldn’t expect any surprising, left-field names. Above just about anything else, Obama values competence, and competence is a byproduct of experience.

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Look at it like this: Who do you want working on your house? Do you want a contractor who knows his way around, someone who comes to your home with recommendations and a portfolio of his past work? Or do you want someone whose eagerness outstrips his understanding, someone with no record, or a lesser track record, just because he’s a fresh face you’ve never tried before?

That should be an easy call (especially considering the work of the outgoing contractor, who tried to tear the house down).

O ye of flaming hair, calm down. Chill. It’s 49 days before Obama raises his hand to become the next president, and already he is well ahead of his predecessors in both naming his Cabinet and defining at least some of the issues that will be his administration’s immediate concerns.

This is what change truly looks like: a process and not an event.

This is becoming the change we voted for.
Image credit: Obama national security team: Change.gov. Clinton and Obama: Charles Dharapak, The Associated Press.

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