Let the Infighting Begin

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.”

It would be foolish to deny that Emanuel is partisan, to be sure. But above all he is a bone-deep pragmatist—and also a Grade-A pain in the ass, a foulmouthed, ball-busting, pipe-hitting practitioner of realpolitik, the perfect bad cop to balance the soothing, above-the-fray posture that Obama hopes to strike. It would also be nuts to claim that the left has zero reason to distrust Emanuel, whose role in the Clinton administration (on crime, welfare, nafta, and much else) was as a kind of centrist enforcer. Indeed, several sources in the Obamasphere tell me Emanuel’s installment is meant to send a crystalline message to congressional liberals: that the president-elect has no intention of allowing them to set the agenda, let alone roll him as an earlier generation of Capitol Hill pooh-bahs did to Clinton in 1993 and 1994.

Emanuel’s and Summer’s up-close experience of that imbroglio is perceived by many in Obama’s orbit an indisputable advantage. But for other Obamaphiles, it fuels the anxiety that the regimes of the new boss and the old boss will end up resembling one another all too much. It’s easy to trace the origins of this discomfort: Its source is Obama, who spent much of the primaries arguing that it was time to turn the page from the Clintonian “triangulation and poll-driven politics.” Yet now an array of Clintonites are intimately involved in Obama’s transition, from John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff and now the transition’s co-chairman, to Greg Craig and Jim Steinberg, both former Clinton foreign-policy officials who are said to be the leading two contenders to be Obama’s national-security adviser.

The problems with complaining about the supposed Clintonification of the Obama administration are many. The first and more glaring is that it reflects a woefully inadequate grasp of history and of what’s required to build a presidency from scratch. For the better part of two decades, the Democratic Party, like it or not, was Clinton’s party. A generation of policy and political people earned their stripes in WJC’s administration, and without them, Obama would be at a great disadvantage, if not completely doomed, in trying to enact an agenda of any ambition whatsoever. His own inner circle is startlingly small and his time on the national stage far too brief to have amassed a substantial coterie of seasoned advisers.

Moreover, it’s already evident that Obama has every intention of balancing the Clinton holdovers with his own homegrown true believers. Emanuel is as much an Obama person as a Clinton one—the two men are tight. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, appears to be headed for a senior position in the White House; so does his communications czar, Robert Gibbs. And everyone in Obama-land assumes that the president-elect will be taking along with him an assortment of members of his Chicago mafia, people like housing-developer Valerie Jarrett and parking-lot magnate Marty Nesbitt, who are among his closest consiglieres and dearest friends. They also expect significant roles for major Washington players, such as former senator Tom Daschle, whom no one in his right mind would describe as Clintonites.

What’s easy to forget is that, in building his administration, the audience that Obama is—or should be—playing to isn’t hard-core, stone-cold Democrats. It’s the broader electorate, much of which has invested great hope in Obama but continues to watch him closely, waiting for proof that his promise of fundamental change isn’t, well, just words. What that audience would regard as more of the same wouldn’t be a handful of Clintonites in high positions but the sight of Obama’s capitulating to the hoary interest-group posse that’s just begun to rear its head, or to the demands of the extant congressional party Establishment. To a striking degree, and by design, Obama’s victory was won independently of these forces. He owes them precious little. And that gives him the freedom to build a government on the singular criteria of its capacity to get shit done.

The heartening thing is that, so far, Obama seems to get this deeply. It’s early days, of course, but both the Emanuel and Podesta appointments reflect clarity of purpose, maturity, and cold-eyed calculation in roughly equal measure. The choice of Summers would demonstrate all these things, too—along with a bracing lack of concern for what the carpers and ankle-biters think. For Obama, the trick will be remembering that change does indeed require change agents, but that agents of change can be found in the unlikeliest of places: the Clinton camp, Old Washington, and even the GOP. In 1992, Clinton promised an administration that looked like America. Obama is promising something much more lofty—transcendence, transfiguration, a new frontier. But a government that actually, you know, works would be a fine place to start.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Let the Infighting Begin