Obama Answers Liberal Critics on Personnel Choices
WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack Obama, rejecting liberals' criticism of his emerging cabinet, today strongly defended his decision to choose more experienced, centrist aides for his inner circle, arguing that the nation needs sure hands in a time of turmoil -- and that it's his job to bring the change he promised voters.At a press conference to introduce his economic advisory board, Obama said it would send the wrong message to the nation if he stocked his cabinet with newcomers, especially given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deepening economic crisis. Veterans, he said, bring the wisdom to help him shape his agenda and the know-how to execute it.
"What we are going to do is combine experience with fresh thinking," he said in his most detailed comments on the issue. "But I understand where the vision for change comes from. First and foremost, it comes from me. That's my job -- to provide a vision in terms of where we are going, and to make sure then that my team is implementing."
Seeking to reassure supporters worried that he's "recycling" appointees from President Clinton's era, Obama suggested it is unrealistic to expect him to bypass the best people available simply because of ties to the last Democratic administration.
However, liberal activists contend that Obama so far has gone too far in one direction, bringing in too many of the same Washington insiders and undermining his own message of change. Obama, they complain, hasn't given a top cabinet job to a true liberal, and grumble about the expected appointments of rival Hillary Clinton -- a centrist Democrat -- as Obama's secretary of state and of Robert M. Gates, a Republican appointed by President Bush, to stay on as defense secretary for at least a year.
"I'm not in the camp that says, 'Give him a chance, because his vision will dominate,' " said Tom Hayden cq, a high-profile liberal and antiwar activist who said he supports Obama despite misgivings over his cabinet picks. "I don't know what he's doing. This is not governing from the center. This is governing from the past."
Liberal bloggers, who helped fuel Obama's grassroots fund-raising and volunteer armies, are particularly vocal in their critique of Obama's choices so far.
Some of them argue that competence and experience aren't substitutes for the right ideology. "How can selecting only pro-war Cabinet members and advisers be justified on the grounds of 'competence' -- as though one's support for the War has nothing to do with competence?" asks blogger Glenn Greenwald, who also writes for the online journal Salon.
Since he was elected three weeks ago, Obama has tapped several people who worked for President Clinton, including Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff and Lawrence Summers as his senior economic adviser. Reports say that the president-elect has settled on at least two other Clinton-era officials -- Eric Holder for attorney general and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson for commerce secretary.
Criticism of Obama's personnel picks, however, intensified when word leaked out that he will select Clinton as secretary of state. Antiwar activists decried her vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which Obama hammered her about during the Democratic primaries. And after reports Tuesday that Obama would keep Gates at the Pentagon, some suggested it could mean Obama was reconsidering a campaign pledge to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.
But Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, warned against drawing premature conclusions about any shifts in position. "Let's wait and see the identity of the entire team," he said in an interview.
Liberals who are most upset by the cabinet picks may have had unrealistic expectations about what an Obama presidency would look like, he said, especially "the ones who have been there from the beginning."Obama, Sabato said, "is also trying to be pragmatic under very difficult circumstances. Frankly, I never believed he was a superliberal. He's got to do what he thinks is right. Everyone needs to keep in mind that he's inheriting a bloody disaster."