Obama’s Not-So-Centrist Cabinet

Journalists continue to insist that President-elect Obama has named a largely centrist Cabinet. But they’re clinging to a storyline that might have been true two weeks ago but no longer is. Obama’s national security team — Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and James L. Jones — and his economic team — Lawrence Summers, Tim Geithner, Christina Romer, and Bill Richardson — could be regarded as centrists, or at least as centrist Democrats.

But as the Cabinet selection process went on, Obama increasingly named left-wing activists to jobs in which they could carry out his ambitious plans to “transform our economy” and be the 21st-century Franklin Roosevelt. Tom Daschle at HHS wrote a book on how we need a Federal Health Board to manage and regulate every aspect of our health care. Hilda Solis at Labor is a sponsor of the bill to eliminate secret ballots in union authorization elections and of heavy regulatory burdens on business. She opposed the Central America Free Trade Agreement and generally opposes free trade. Shaun Donovan worked on affordable housing issues in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration — just the policies that led to the mortgage crisis and then the general financial crisis. His reward for a job well done? He’s coming back as secretary of HUD.

White House science adviser John Holdren is an old-time “running-out-of-resources” Paul Ehrlich cohort who disdains economics and famously lost a bet with Julian Simon on whether the prices of natural resources would rise, reflecting growing scarcity. He and Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy; former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection chief Lisa Jackson as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Carol Browner, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton, as the White House’s “energy/climate czar,” are all global-warming catastrophists who see an urgent need to impose crushing burdens on the economy in the name of influencing the climate a century from now.

The choice of Tom Vilsack to be secretary of agriculture is said by the Washington Post to be an example of Obama’s moderation and intention to balance competing interests. You see, he’s popular with “groups representing big agricultural interests, which praise him for his support of biotechnology and subsidies for corn-based ethanol.” But also with groups that want to shift Ag dollars to smaller farms. So the question to be decided is who gets the gravy, not whether the gravy will be ladled out by Washington. There doesn’t appear to be anyone in the Obama Cabinet who will speak for the taxpayers’ interest. Or who will argue that it would best for the whole country to let the market work and not have the government pick any winners or losers.

Sometimes journalists just don’t seem to reconcile the “centrist” claim with their own understanding of Obama’s intentions. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, begins its article, “The Cabinet that President-elect Barack Obama completed on Friday is a largely centrist and pragmatic collection of politicians and technocrats without a pronounced ideological bent.” But two paragraphs later the authors note:

Obama wants this Cabinet to market and put in place the most dramatic policy changes in the country since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal: a mammoth program to improve roads and bridges; a healthcare system that covers more sick people at less cost; limitations on fossil fuels and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming; big investments in energy efficiency; middle-class tax cuts along with a tax hike on wealthy Americans.

That doesn’t sound like the agenda for a pragmatic and non-ideological administration. That’s what you would expect from a bunch of statist ideologues who have been waiting years or decades for an election and a crisis that would allow them to fasten on American society their own plan for how energy, transportation, health care, education, and the economy should work. That’s not centrist, it’s a collectivist vision hammered out by Ivy Leaguers and activists over the past couple of decades. In its more idealistic formulation, it’s based on the premise that smart people know what the people need better than the people themselves do, and that command and control work better than markets and individual choice. In its more practical application, it’s interest-group rent-seeking dressed in the trappings of public interest.

The proof will be in the pudding, of course. It’s the policies that matter, not the people. But these are people who weren’t selected for the misty dream of listening “not to your doubts or your fears but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations” but rather for their determination to ensure that “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment … when we came together to remake this great nation.” And for their commitment to use “this painful crisis [as] an opportunity to transform our economy.”

And for the rest of us, this is a time to remember that limited constitutional government and free markets sustain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness better than collectivist agendas carried out by powerful states.