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Let the Infighting Begin

He won by being No Drama Obama. Should he now stir some up?

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

The mau-mauing of Barack Obama officially began less than 24 hours after he won the White House, when National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy piped up about the possibility of Obama picking Larry Summers as his Treasury secretary. Gandy told the Huffington Post she had “mixed feelings” about Summers, saying he “doesn’t seem to get” the economic implications of gender-based wage disparities. She cited Summers’s incendiary comments as president of Harvard about women’s intrinsic inaptitude for math and science—the ones that helped get him booted—as a cause for concern. And she expressed some displeasure that no female economists are being mentioned as contenders for the Treasury job. “We’re gonna be forwarding some names to the Obama transition team,” Gandy said. “It’s important that in this new administration women’s voices are heard and heeded.”

The next day, the HuffPo ran another anti-Summers story, this time revisiting a controversial memo on the economic logic of exporting pollution to the developing world that he wrote (or at least signed his name to) in 1991 at the World Bank—and also suggesting that his having once dated wingnut Laura Ingraham “could become a source of political embarrassment” to Obama. Soon enough, Summers’s inflammatory tendencies were being invoked all over cable news; in a post whose headline called Summers a “fat, hated burnout,” Wonkette declared, “Want change, a fresh start? Hire a notorious ex-Clintonite who masturbates to NAFTA!”

That Obama’s appointments, potential or actual, would inspire caterwauling on the right has always been a given. But judging by the anti-Summers preemptive strike and the murmurs of discontent over Obama’s choice of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, the agita on the left is shaping up to be just as fierce. Traditional liberal interest groups worry that Obama will be too centrist. Newfangled Obamaphiles fear that he’ll succumb to old politics. Both fret that his administration will wind up looking—horrors!—like Clinton III.

Dealing with the expectations and demands of putative allies is among the main challenges facing Obama during his transition from campaigning to governing. Some influential voices are counseling conflict-avoidance: Remember that you won, they say, by being No Drama Obama. But the array of forces now swarming around him, laboring to sink their hooks into his nascent presidency, will make a drama-free entrance all but impossible. How Obama copes will tell us much about how he plans to govern—and leave him either hitting the ground in full stride or staggering out of the gate.

It’s not surprising that Summers should emerge as the transition’s first real flashpoint. With the economy in tatters, Treasury is almost certain to be the first cabinet post that Obama fills. By all accounts, there are four people on the shortlist for the job—Summers, Federal Reserve Bank of New York president Tim Geithner, former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, and New Jersey governor Jon Corzine—but Summers is considered the front-runner, and with good reason. He has done the job before, is trusted by the markets both at home and abroad, has been advising Obama closely for months, and is by common consensus the Democratic Party’s best economic mind.

Yet Summers has more than his share of foes, and not just among feminists. Though he was prescient about the financial crisis, forecasting it last fall, and has lately called for vigorous reregulation of Wall Street, many on the left blame Summers (along with Bob Rubin and Alan Greenspan) for the deregulation that led to the implosion in the first place. And they blame him further for having lured Bill Clinton to the right on economics with the siren song of fiscal rectitude. “The feelings are strong, they are rooted in ideology, and the deployment of the women argument is, I believe, a Trojan horse for the bigger stuff,” maintains one Summers booster.

The easy, no-drama call for Obama would simply be to bypass Summers in favor of Geithner, a younger man and a fresher face and thus a more vibrant symbol of the change Obama has promised. But tapping Summers would have advantages—not despite but precisely because of the opposition he has stirred up. Obama never really had a Sister Souljah moment during his campaign, and staging one now might serve him well. Picking Summers would send a powerful message that Obama isn’t going to let himself be pushed around, as Clinton was, by the various factions on the left during his transition. That merit matters to him more than ideology or identity politics.

Obama clearly understands the importance of transmitting such signals, as evinced by his selection of Emanuel to run his White House—a choice that many on both sides of the aisle found perplexing and even disturbing. Among Republicans, the former Clinton aide and current House Democrat is seen as a ruthless partisan. Within hours of Emanuel’s accepting the job, the GOP put out a statement condemning the appointment as inconsistent with Obama’s pledges of comity and assailing Emanuel as an “insider who played a lead role in breaking Washington.” And these charges were echoed, if more quietly, on the left. “Emanuel as an agent of change?” asked David Corn in Mother Jones. “Maybe not.”


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