Watch out for Obama's Team Selling Conservative Policies as Progressive Politics

"This is the violin model: Hold power with the left hand, and play the music with your right."-- David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton official who wrote a history of the National Security Council, said on Friday, as news of Mrs. Clinton's and Mr. Geithner's appointments leaked.

This quote, from the New York Timesstory asserting that Barack Obama will govern from the center-right, highlights a very important dynamic in politics: the tendency of politicians to use the argot of progressivism in their public presentations (to "hold power with the left hand") -- all while wielding conservative policy ("playing the music with your right").

There's nothing surprising about this - the reason endangered politicians of both parties start airing populist progressive themes around election time is because they know those themes are popular among rank-and-file voters (thus the definition of "populism") - they know, in other words, that this is a decidedly center-left country, and when they have to answer to that country come election day, they go left. But once these politicians get into office and are far away from all of us, the unwashed masses, the pressures of money and media -- ie. the Establishment -- unleashes incredible pressure for them to actually write the details of policy in a way that preserves the conservative status quo.

Enter the Obama administration.

While there's not enough evidence to declare a full-on "trend" in the incoming Obama White House, it is notable that Obama's policy appointments (ie. Cabinet secretaries and White House policy advisers who actually craft policy) are almost all right-of-center, Establishment choices -- and almost none are, as The Nation's Chris Hayes has said, movement progressives. At the same time, many Obama appointments to exclusively political positions -- that is, positions that are focused on selling policy, whatever that policy may be -- are terrific movement progressives, people like Mike Lux (transition outreach to progressive orgs), Ellen Moran (communications director), Phil Schiliro (congressional liason) and Patrick Gaspard (political director). In other words, the initial structure seems to resemble the principle in American politics of politicians publicly selling their policies in progressive terms, while having those policies be crafted with much more conservative ideology.

Intra-administration ideological ghettoization isn't new. The last Democratic administration engaged in its share of conservative-progressive ghettoization - but rather than making the policy/politics barrier the wall of the two ghettos, it divided the two ideologies between the cabinet offices with different jurisdictions. The cabinet offices that oversaw economic regulation and defense largely went to conservatives, and the cabinet offices with powerful grassroots progressive constituencies like Labor, EPA, I and HUD went to progressives.

The potential ghettoization in the Obama administration -- and I stress again, it's only the potential -- is one where the policy sculptors are center-right Establishmentarians, and where the policy marketers (ie. the political team) is comprised of people who know how to package and sell policies in the language of progressivism, and sell those policies to progressive activists, a progressive-dominated Democratic congressional caucus and a center-left public at large. Certainly, Obama may mimic the Clinton administration and give Labor, EPA, Interior and HUD to progressives as well, but the politics-policy divide nonetheless seems to be the defining progressive-conservative boundary right now.

Obviously, the division of responsibility is never totally cut and dry. As Karl Rove showed, a White House political team can have a lot of influence over policy. So we can't draw any hard and fast conclusions about what this will mean in the Obama administration. It's very possible that the progressive political team will have a lot of policy say.

That said, I do think it is important for progressives to understand the difference between the policy and political machinery of an administration. Ghettoizing conservatives into the policy machine (to "play the music") and progressives into the political machine (to help Obama "hold power") would not bode well for all the progressive policy promises Obama made during the campaign. After all, if the details of policy are being forged by center-right Establishment insiders, those policies are more likely (though certainly not guaranteed) to represent a fairly center-right Establishment viewpoint, no matter how well those policies are draped in the salesmanship of a progressive political machinery.

This gets to the fundamental question about Obama that nobody really knows. Does Obama believe that in order to be a successful president and right the economy, he has to fulfill the decidedly progressive policy promises he made during the campaign? Or does he believe that if he combines his own personal salesmanship talents with a strong political team that is skilled at the language of progressivism, he can sell a right-of-center Establishment agenda as huge "change?"

Nobody knows the answer to this - and those who say they do are arguing with the same ridiculed faith that George W. Bush cited when he said he knew Vladimir Putin was a good guy because he looked into the Russian autocrat's eyes. The truth is, we just don't know what Obama thinks his path should be.

That's why it is important to keep a close eye on how the new administration is being constructed. The strategies we create to enact a progressive agenda (and I assume that, and not just Democratic Party dominance, is what progressives want) will have to be calibrated for the kind of administration that is ultimately built. An administration that has right-of-center policy sculptors and left-of-center policy sellers will have to be worked with differently than, say, an administration with progressive policy sculptors and conservative policy sellers.

Again, I'm not saying the administration is built yet, or that the initial staffing decisions delineate a full-fledged trend. But we should watch closely to see if a trend does, indeed, develop.

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