Saturday, December 06, 2008

Personnel is Policy - Obama and the Progressives, Part 2

An interesting exchange last week on The Rachel Maddow Show, between Rachel and David Sirota, discussing some of Barack Obama's choices for his administration:

MADDOW: They are essentially sort of a center-right economic team, no big ideological choices there unless you consider sort of Clintonian economists to be a big ideological statement. . . .

SIROTA: Well, I do think they are ideological. I think they are center-right and they are, basically, a lot of free market fundamentalists. And I think that what Wall Street tends to react to is it likes some of its own. And so, Obama is in this weird position where he has to basically tell Wall Street that he’s going to have some of their own, but he’s also got to tell the public that he’s going to change, that he’s going to push a policy change.

And so, the tough thing for Obama to do -- the question is, is whether he can get some of the people who are at the center of this crisis, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and get them to carry, actually, radically new policies. That’s the trick for him.

MADDOW: Well, Obama advisors are telling the "Washington Post" today that his economic picks, the people who he has chosen, they don’t signal that he plans to govern from the center. They are trying to assure people that he is a progressive. The question is - it’s sort of policy over personnel here. Can he implement a progressive approach to the economy with those folks that are on his team in place?

SIROTA: That’s the question. You know, Grover Norquist, the conservative activist that says, "Personnel is policy." Obama is basically saying, "No, I’m going to be different."

I think it was David Axelrod who told the "New York Times" -- he said, you know, he’s not hiring people for their vision, he’s hiring people to effectuate his vision. Now, that would be unprecedented, to hire sort of ideological economic advisors who are going to carry out a more progressive ideological agenda from Obama.

But that’s essentially what he’s saying. He’s trying to have that -- basically split that difference and tell Wall Street, "I’m hiring some of your own," but he’s also telling America they’re going to carry a progressive agenda. And I think that’s certainly a new thing in our country.

MADDOW: One worth watching and probably worth holding his feet to the fire over, I imagine.
Some questions:

1) Is it true that "personnel is policy"? Many other conservatives besides Grover Norquist think so. Here's just one example, from a 2001 article from The Heritage Foundation: "Personnel Is Policy: Why The New President Must Take Control Of The Executive Branch."
It is often said, correctly, that personnel is policy. The nexus between personnel management and policy management is therefore crucial. Good policies cannot be advanced without good, capable, and committed personnel to formulate, implement, aggressively promote, and steadfastly defend them. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald W. Reagan were noteworthy in this respect for making strong and effective Cabinet appointments and solid White House staffing decisions.
Why do conservatives believe that "personnel is policy," while most liberals seem to think that Obama will put forth policies that contradict those of the people he's hiring to be in his administration?

I don't have an answer.

But, if I may dip into football for a moment. . . . When Eric Mangini became coach of the New York Jets a few years ago, he implemented a new 3-4 defense - his new policies, if you will. The problem was that his nose tackle and middle linebacker had been drafted under the previous coach to play in a 4-3 defense, so they were too small to handle the new scheme. It was a disaster, both for the the team and for the individual players. Jonathan Vilma had been an All-Pro linebacker and the leading tackler in the NFL in the old scheme, but he was getting manhandled in the new one. Finally, after struggling for two seasons, Managini traded Vilma and some others, and he went out and got players who would fit what he wanted to do. In football, at least, personnel is often policy.

2) Is Obama a Progressive? Or does he have progressive policies?

Does it matter? Isn't there more to being a good president than your policies? Does he have integrity? Will he make good decisions? Is simple competence enough at this point?

3) If he's not a Progressive, will he be willing to work with Progressives to implement some of their policies?

Will Progressives ever be able to see Obama and his policies clearly? Can they achieve an un-romanticized, post-Bush analysis of the situation? Or do we just keep hoping makes another video? If Progressives misread Obama, and if they aren't organized and pro-active, will they spend the next four or eight years on the sideline?

4) What is a Progressive, anyway?

Do they have anything to do with the original Progressives, who worked with Evangelicals to push for Prohibition? Are they free-market fundamentalists? Are we just using "Progressive" because "Liberal" became a dirty word?

5) And what is a Liberal, anyway?

What beliefs do Progressives and Liberals hold when it comes to economic policies? Foreign policy? Social policies?

Jonathan Vilma, formerly of the New York Jets. Political Metaphor?

6) For the second time recently, an intelligent Liberal source - Rachel Maddow - has suggested that center-right economic policies like those espoused by the Clintons aren't ideological. A couple of weeks ago, it was The New York Times, as I discussed in my first post on Obama and the Progressives. I thought the Times was being disingenuous, because they believe in and push these economic policies, and I can see how they benefit by making them seem "pragmatic" rather than ideological. Globalization is inevitable. That's one of the primary Neo-liberal mantras to disarm opposition to their policies. Their pre-emptive strike against anyone who would question what are, ultimately, just theories.

But it's interesting to hear a smart person like Maddow falling for this line of thought. Luckily, in this case, someone could say - No, wait a minute, these people are ideological. "Free-market fundamentalists." That doesn't sound so pragmatic, does it?

7) Is it coherent, politically, for Progressives and Liberals to continue to support candidates with center-right economic policies? Why do they complain so much about the repercussions of those policies when they support and vote for the people who implement them? Why do many Democrats seem not to care or even know that Bill Clinton pushed NAFTA on the country? Or financial deregulation? Or media deregulation? Or privatization of the government? Does nostalgia constitute a viable political philosophy?

8) What is the relationship between the policies pushed by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin in the 1990s and the current economic meltdown? If there is a relationship, why is Barack Obama hiring so many Rubin associates and disciples?

9) What does it mean to be "on the Left"? What policies and ideas does someone on the Left in the year 2008 actually support? Is there a Left in the United States? How does it relate to the Left in places like Europe or South America? Do Progressives and Liberals belong "on the Left" - even if they support capitalistic, center-right economic policies?

10) Do linear terms like "Left," "Center" and "Right" do justice to the complex social, economic and political beliefs that most people hold? What are the alternatives?

11) Are you a Progressive if you're against Proposition 8? Are you on the Left? What if you're against Proposition 8 and you support the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA)? Are you still on the Left? Are you still a Progressive or a Liberal? Are you Andrew Sullivan? What if you're against Proposition 8 and you want to invade Iran? What does that make you? Hillary Clinton?

12) Will Obama push for passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement when it comes up for a vote in the next year? Will the new Secretary of Commerce, Bill Richardson, help him push it through? Does anyone remember Bill Richardson's role in pushing through NAFTA? Does anyone care?

13) Do I hold coherent political beliefs? Why do I dislike being thought of as a Liberal? Why did I leave the Democratic Party? Am I a Progressive? Am I on the Left? Am I in the Center? Am I somewhere a little below and behind? Can I be conservative in some things and radical in others? Can one be a Left Conservative? (Norman Mailer thought so. Is that good or bad?) Can you be on the Left if you get tired of Leftists? Can one respect some of Marx's insights and not be a Marxist? What if I listen to The Clash? Is it okay that I like The Clash but despise Communism? Have people on the Left ever really come to terms with the fact that their ideology led to such a horrible end? Can one respect aspects of Capitalism - like buying CDs by The Clash - and not be a Capitalist? Can anyone in 2008 NOT be a Capitalist? Can one respect aspects of Anarchism but think many anarchists are assholes? Can I enjoy watching football and still be a Progressive? What about my inexplicable urge to beat up Weezer fans? If I'm a Progressive, is it okay that I slammed back a few Brooklyn Lagers last night? Can I like Subcomandante Marcos but not like Rage Against the Machine? What if I like Fugazi? Is it okay that I hate the Democrats as long as I hate the Republicans more? Am I just a contrarian? Does all of this go back to not liking bands as much once they get famous? (How to explain my love of The Beatles, then?) Why did it seem like there was a Left in Spain but only Liberals here? Should I support the bailout of the automakers? Haven't they been part of the problem for decades? But what about all of the workers? Why have we given hundreds of billions of dollars to the firms on Wall Street that caused all the problems to begin with? Why did we give them so much money so easily but make the automakers beg in public for a paltry 34 billion? If we bail out the automakers, can we please, please, please stipulate that the Ford family relinquish ownership of the 0-13 Detroit Lions? Seriously. They've had the team for almost 50 years and have driven them into the ground.

13) Why am I writing about all of this?

Sigh . . .


Liam said...

Just a quick note -- excellent questions.

Liam said...

2nd quick note--
Krugman says Geithner isn't that bad.

Also,if we want to take Obama at his word that he really is being progressive, perhaps we can wonder if the economic crisis has changed all the rules. If even Bush has turned into a New Dealer, perhaps we can expect similar epiphanies in people like Lawrence Summers. At the same time, there is wisdom in not scaring the two-year-olds on wall street with economists who are clear leftists (whatever that means).

I was happy to see among all the free marketers at Obama's first economic press conference the diminutive and progressive Robert Reich.

I tend to be pretty leftist policy-wise, still I hate cliques and have no desire to identify myself politically.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the kind comments.

Krugman says Geithner isn't that bad.

Well . . . I think I have more mixed feelings about Krugman than you do. You have to remember that he's been a proponent of many of the economic policies I'm talking about, someone who believes in globalization to a degree that I've never been comfortable with. I'm not against globalization, per se, but I definitely trust corporations and governments much less than he does: this is the man Bill Clinton seriously considered as his economic advisor, and who served as a consultant to Enron. I don't think Krugman has ever fully acknowledged the impact of globalization on the poor in other countries. He's basically of the philosophy that horrible, low-wage manufacturing jobs are better than what he calls "no jobs at all." But he doesn't take into account the cultural (or environmental) devastation of destroying centuries of subsistence rural farming and replacing it with urban factories. That's exactly what's happened in Mexico, and I'm sure the same pattern has been repeated elsewhere. There's a reason why you have so many farmers from Oaxaca shivering through winters in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I would like Krugman to explain to them in person that the destruction of all their traditions is good for them because now they can live in squalid shanties Outside D.F. and earn more money making useless crap for Wal-Mart. And I'm sure he would. While telling them that he's much smarter than they are when it comes to economics, especially now that he has his Nobel Prize.

Sorry, some residual anger at Krugman coming out. When I started reading up on him during the primaries, I wasn't impressed with what I found. I like him at times, but I'm not comforted when he says that one of Rubin and Paulson's acolytes isn't that bad.

It's just the feeling that it's going to be the same-old, same-old when it comes to our economic policies. You can already see it taking place in the bailout of Wall Street. We're facing a once-in-a-century crisis, yet I see very little questioning of the overall arc of theories and actions that got us here. Rather than question what may be fundamental flaws in the neo-liberal economic creeds, we're just going to give them hundreds of billions of OUR dollars and then put the same people in charge of dispersing that money - because "we have to." It's a crisis.

I'm not advocating that Obama hire a bunch of Left economists - if they exist in this country. But does he have to have so many of the same people who got us into this mess to begin with? Maybe you're right and the situation will change the rules.

But it reminds me a lot of 9/11 and the aftermath. Rather than any serious discussion as a country of what caused the crisis, we just continued doing what we always have - in fact, we went one better and came up with "pre-emptive strikes" and rationalized torture. Because we were in a crisis. I'm guessing from having read reviews of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine that this may be what's she's talking about.

I do like Obama wanting to spend some decent money on infrastructure. I think that's essential.

Jeff said...

Well, it does make one wonder if it's really true that both parties are completely owned by the Business Roundtable, and that Washington just leave us with the illusion that there's a "left" in this country, which can feel free as long as it wants to to go and waste its energies on boutique culture war issues like gay marriage. After all, what do the K Street boys care, as long as laissez faire commerce isn't interfered with?

I don't know if you cared for Joe Bageant at all when you read him, but I found this quote interesting from his essay In the Reign of the One-nutted King:

America has a long record of stifling dissent exactly when dissent is most needed. Democracy American style means we get free speech for trivial matters but not for life-and-death issues. When an election is stolen, the very party from whom it was stolen refuses to protest the theft because well, "Nobody likes sour grapes, do they? thereby assuring future electoral thefts. When America supplies Israel with cluster bombs to kill Palestinian children and grandmothers, you don't see rallies against Israel or American arms cartels. You see yet another exercise of free speech on behalf those things the politicians and corporations could care less about, and thus grant us permission to "dissent" upon. Issues such as gender and identity, or just about anything related to sexual freedom: "Go ahead, parade and rant about your own penises and vulvas. Just don't challenge the banks, the war machine or the fraudulent democratic process by which we manage the people. Remember, fucking with these things is called terrorism. So stick to your own narrow "issues" like sexual freedom and nobody will get hurt. Got it punk?"

Good ole sexual freedom, one of the American left's favorite golden oldies. It's not as if sexual freedom has not been a fact of life in this country ever since the puritans lost that fight in the Sixties and Seventies. Sure there is a small but very damned loud contingency of bitter enders making a last stand at imposing restrictions that the public has already rejected. But we did win the sexual revolution, my friends. Look around at the movies, gay and lesbian focused TV shows, pre-marital and extra-marital sex as the main fare in magazines, popular novels and TV shows. Hell, we've even created a couple of new sexes I still haven't figured out, all those "crosses" and "trans" whatevers. We may not have become the Amsterdam of the New World (which as near as I can tell, is Rio de Janeiro) but we nevertheless won.

Better yet, people stand up for what they have won too. Bill Clinton is living proof. The fact that Clinton, despite cigars, blowjobs, impeachment, and $40 million spent by the Republicans to rub his face in a cum stained dress on television for years on end, Clinton remains massively popular. Every year we find him waving to the world from near the top of the list of the world's most admired men. As a martyr symbol for sexual freedom, all his supposed sins, not to mention his genuine crimes against humanity, were washed away...

The truth is that Clinton, like Reagan, fucked over millions of the poor, sentenced uncounted children to death by embargo, and shipped millions of American jobs wholesale to the slums of Mysore and Mexico City. He was as close to being a Republican as you can be without getting the mandatory GOP lobotomy and a wet kiss from Ted Haggard. Still though, millions of Americans refuse to repudiate him because his right to sexual privacy represented their own, still represents their own, and all the Bible haired gasbags on the Christian Broadcasting Network and all the sexually frustrated Holy Rollers in the country are not going to turn things around. We won that one.

crystal said...

I don't really understand all this stuff :(

I do not think someone can be a liberal and be for prop 8, though, because prop 8 destroyed a civil right and liberals would tend to be for civil rights and equality. Can someone be a liberal and a homophobe?

I never thought Obama was extremely liberal. It would be almost impossible for such a person to run a sucessful presidential campaign. From what I've read at some bogs, conservative Catholics are upset by some of his choices of people who are too liberal, at least in the area of pro-choice-ness.

cowboyangel said...


Sorry for the confusion. I meant AGAINST Prop 8. I've changed the text.

I agree - I don't think anyone can be extremely liberal and get elected president in this country. And I don't think Obama is extremely liberal, and I don't think he's really a "progressive." If a progressive is what I think it is, though I'm not entirely sure anymore.

I think he's center-right economically and in the center in terms of social policies.

cowboyangel said...

Well, it does make one wonder if it's really true that both parties are completely owned by the Business Roundtable, and that Washington just leave us with the illusion that there's a "left" in this country, which can feel free as long as it wants to to go and waste its energies on boutique culture war issues like gay marriage.

I think that's true in many ways. And I think Bageant has a point in the excerpt you shared. The public discussion in the U.S. about economic issues takes place within a much narrower space than it does in other countries. That's the legacy of American Capitalism. We, the public, can't even imagine a broader discussion. Even, and especially, among Liberals. I mean, you've got someone like Obama being tarred as a Marxist, for God's sake. It's insane. I guess that's what I was trying to get at. I know that was the case with myself until I went to Spain. Only when I saw how the public discussion unfolded elsewhere did I realize how narrow it was here.

It's like Liberals just take what's fed them when it comes to economic issues and only get upset over social issues.

I liked a lot of what Bageant was saying in Deer Hunting with Jesus, but I didn't always like the way he said it. He reminds me too much of Michael Moore. I suppose they're both talking to a certain audience and have to use certain rhetorical devices that bug me.

Bageant spends so much time complaining about how Liberal treat the white working class - rednecks - which I can appreciate, especially after living in New York. But he just goes on and on. And, in the end, I think he actually insults the rednecks in the same way he accuses Liberals of doing, because he spends so much time trying to slam Liberal attitudes. Sorry, but rednecks like their Starbucks. Some rednecks buy organic food. They're not as stupid or uncultured as even he seems to imply.

Jeff said...

Valid criticisms. He also seems like he's as willing as the people he claims to speak up for to throw all the that he holds dear out the window for the sake of preserving this perverse "Scots-Irish gun culture."

Liam said...

I see what you mean about Krugman -- I guess that in the realm of real possibilities given all that you have pointed out, he's a bit more to the left. You also make a good point about Obama being called a Marxist. On one hand, that was just racism (the idea that a black politician would just have to be a dangerous scary radical). On the other, the whole free market fundamentalism in this country has become so established that you can label someone a socialist just because he wants to raise taxes on the rich.

I knew Obama was basically a moderate. I have more hope from his intelligence and judgment than from any illusion that his politics could be anywhere near as progressive as mine. If that was the only yardstick, I would have voted for Kucinich.

cowboyangel said...

He also seems like he's as willing as the people he claims to speak up for to throw all the that he holds dear out the window for the sake of preserving this perverse "Scots-Irish gun culture."

You're right. It's like he's trying too hard to sound like a redneck at times. I don't always buy it.

For all my criticisms, however, I do think he's onto something. He definitely gets the huge gap opening up between the classes. I just read him with a certain reserve. But I tell you, he nailed the whole mortgage crisis in that book, and that was published in 2007.

cowboyangel said...

I guess that in the realm of real possibilities given all that you have pointed out, he's a bit more to the left.

He is. And he did wind up criticizing some of Clinton's economic stuff.

I have more hope from his intelligence and judgment than from any illusion that his politics could be anywhere near as progressive as mine.

That's pretty much where I'm at. Really, I wasn't trying to criticize Obama in what I wrote. My criticism is aimed more at ourselves - those who are liberals or progressives or on the left, whatever these things mean. The current economic crisis is an excellent occasion for us to really think about what we do believe and stand for in terms of economic issues. And to publicly question the policies we don't think have worked in the past. The Republican certainly aren't going to ask themselves questions about why we're going through this. They just want to cut taxes more. It seems that we're the one who need to vocalize clearly what should be done. But it's hard to even have the discussion, because so many liberals don't seem willing or able to talk about economic issues beyond a few pat answers. I want to expand the space for public discussion about these things. We should be far enough past the heavy weight of 19th century Marxist thought now to verbalize alternatives that speak to what's happening NOW. The information revolution, I think, has also changed things dramatically. For all my criticisms of the pro-globalization people, I do have to admire the fact that they THOUGHT about new policies in the face of new technology and its repercussion and worked to implement those policies. I felt like the global Left was just starting to reach a point, with the World Social Forum and such, that it would be able to come up with new alternatives, rather than just protesting globalization. But 9/11 seemed to shut all of that down indefinitely.

Maybe, with Obama in office, it's time to talk about these things again.