Progressive Circle Forming Around Obama

Monday, December 01, 2008 at 6:00 am
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) (Campaign Photo)

President-elect Barack Obama (Campaign Photo)

While liberal critics sound increasingly uneasy with President-elect Barack Obama’s nominations of centrist, Clinton-era Democrats to Cabinet positions, some are overlooking how Obama has also been assembling a tight progressive cadre to serve with him in the White House.

Progressive blogs are buzzing about Obama’s Cabinet picks, including big-name hires — and likely hires — such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Defense Sec. Robert Gates and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner, a protege of former Secretary Treasury Lawrence Summers under President Clinton, also an Obama economic adviser.  To some irritated observers, these faces aren’t just a return to a previous time but an unwelcome move to the right of Obama’s campaign positions.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“I know everyone is obsessed with the ‘team of rivals’ idea right now, but I feel incredibly frustrated,” said Chris Bowers, a progressive political consultant who blogs for Open Left. “It seems to me as though there is a team of rivals, except for the left, which is left off the team entirely.”

But Obama’s recent White House appointments include progressive voices in key positions. Their views strongly coincide with those progressives who are expressing concern about the president-elect’s Cabinet choices.

Consider the people Obama has selected to be his advisers on domestic policy and national politics, as well as his communications director. Other prominent progressive players, including labor and feminist activists, also will be members of his future White House staff.

In the past two weeks, Obama has tapped Melody Barnes, of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, to serve as his domestic policy director; Patrick Gaspard, a political organizer for the Services Employees International Union, or SEIU, as his politics director; Ellen Moran, of the liberal fund-raising group EMILY’s List, which backs pro-choice women candidates, to run his communications shop; and Phil Schiliro, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle, to serve as the White House’s liaison with Congress.

As head of the Domestic Policy Council, Barnes will oversee national policy priorities. She will be responsible for developing two of Obama’s top priorities — health care and education reform.

Barnes has a history of strong ties to progressive causes. She was chief counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1995 to 2003, working with the liberal standard bearer on civil rights and women’s health legislation. Before that, she helped craft the 1992 Voting Rights Improvement Act while assistant counsel to a House voting rights subcommittee.

In 2004, Barnes made her mark at the Center for American Progress by creating a program called the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, which seeks to identify the moral and ethical underpinnings in policy and develop progressive stands around them. She also founded the Women’s Health and Rights Program, which works on reproductive health and poverty issues.

As vice president of policy, Barnes went on to oversee all the center’s policy programs, including those related to poverty, the environment, energy and national security. Sally Steenland, a former colleague of Barnes at the center, described Barnes’ time overseeing these policy projects as a “perfect warm-up and dress rehearsal for what she will do at the White House.”

Steenland explained that Barnes’ ability to give all these wide-ranging projects adequate attention is a skill that will be critical at the White House, where she will have to juggle many policy priorities.

Those who have worked with Barnes say it’s unlikely that she will go into the White House with pet projects in mind. “She sees the connection between all the issues,” said Jessica Arons, director of the Center for American Progress’ Women’s Health and Rights Program, founded by Barnes. “All of those in some ways become one priority.”

David Sirota has been a member of the angry progressive chorus complaining about Obama’s Cabinet appointments. But when asked in an interview about the president-elect’s recent White House picks, he conceded that Barnes will be a strong progressive voice in the Obama administration.

Even so, he’s not convinced that these appointments carry the same heft as Cabinet jobs. Sirota contends that the White House responsibilities are more like selling policies than developing and implementing them.

“Whose job description is political salesmanship and whose job description is making and executing policy?” Sirota asked.

To underscore his point, Sirota pointed to the job of White House political director, which Gaspard will hold. Sirota contends that, most likely, his political job will not be that instrumental in developing and carrying out policies.

Gaspard, however, is a well-known grass-roots organizer who has worked on many progressive campaigns. As such, he could play an important role in an administration that prides itself on its bottom-up presidential campaign.

Before serving as Obama’s national political director during the general election campaign, Gaspard worked for the largest local union in the country, the 1199 branch of SEIU, an influential union representing thousands of health-care workers in New York. Local and state campaigns would “borrow” him from the union to run their ground operations.

“I think one of the reasons he came to work for the union is it definitely had a long-standing reputation for not just being an advocate for low-paid health workers,” said Jennifer Cunningham, former SEIU political director, “but a tradition of progressive issues outside of bread-and-butter union work.”

Cunningham said the union has worked on many campaigns for progressive candidates, as well as causes like global warming and affordable health care. In 2007, Gaspard lobbied for the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, that provides about 5 million children of low-income families with health-care coverage.

There’s another reason why Gaspard may be a power as White House political adviser. President George W. Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove, was instrumental in shaping key policies of the Bush era. Rove helped build the administration’s case to go to war with Iraq and played a pivotal role in politicizing the Justice Dept.

Gaspard will be joined by other long-time progressive activists, like Moran, the new communications team head. She was executive director of the  EMILY’s List, which seeks to elect pro-choice women Democrats to office. A long-time Democratic player, she also worked on Sen. Tom Harkin’s 1992 presidential run and oversaw a $50-million campaign for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2000.

“[Moran] deserves tremendous credit for leading EMILY’s List this election cycle,” said the group’s president, Ellen R. Malcolm, in a statement, “as we elected the second-largest group of Democratic women in American history.”

Schiliro, another key progressive figure in the White House,  will act as the go-between with Congress. Like Barnes, he worked for Daschle, who is expected to serve as Obama’s secretary of health and human services. Daschle has a liberal voting record in the Senate, particularly on health-care issues.

Schiliro also has strong ties to important members of Congress. He worked for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who was chairman of the House oversight committee from 2006 through this year. Waxman’s committee was instrumental in shaking out a number of embarrassing and politically damaging scandals in the executive branch, including the U.S. attorneys firing scandal, the politicization of the Environmental Protection Agency and corruption at the government’s main contracting agency, the General Services Admin.

Waxman recently unseated Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) to become chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Key progressive voices within the halls of the White House are piling up, but whether the picks will satisfy progressives is yet to be seen.

“It’s not a total shutout,” Bowers wrote this week, “but it isn’t enough.”



Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 7:21 am

I think if Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona is picked for Secretary of the Interior, that would be a strong progressive and pro-environment person in the Cabinet. Also look to see who is picked as Secretary of Labor–that will be a key one also.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 7:40 am

Yes, that's the point: “…it isn't enough”, because the general American progressive
doesn't know who the Hell these so-called progressive are.
The American public really recognizes only one progressive. Who might that be?
The truth is that person is Senator John Edwards. There needs to be a strong
counter balance added to the Obama Cabinet. I will use a demonstration.
Please watch as John Edwards talks about the loss of American jobs during a
Democratic debate with Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bill Richardson:

Adam B.
Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 8:33 am

One more name not mentioned in this piece — Lisa Brown, the new White House Staff Secretary — i.e., the person who decides what Obama sees. Saturday's NYT has a brief profile. Her “baggage,” they write, is her “activist agenda, which she pursued for years working on civil rights and disability issues and speaking out in liberal legal circles.” She'll be leaving her post as executive director of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, “a left-leaning legal organization in Washington,” where she once wrote:

” It is time to reclaim our Constitution. The Constitution in the 21st Century is a multi-year initiative to advance our nation’s commitment to a constitutional democracy that safeguards individual rights and liberties, genuine equality and access to justice. Our task is to do the deep, careful thinking necessary to formulate and advance a progressive constitutional vision that is intellectually sound, practically relevant, and faithful to our constitutional values and heritage. This effort will need to proceed on a number of fronts: we need to develop and disseminate progressive interpretations on a wide range of issues; debunk constitutional rationales that use misleading or disingenuous interpretations to mask conservative policy objectives; and communicate our ideas and values in language that is relevant to people’s daily lives. Our work must be focused on both the short-term and the long-term – using the tools we have today to move forward where we can and visualizing where we want to be in twenty years and how to get there.

“This effort has a deeply intellectual component. We must think boldly and creatively, and establish objectives that might seem to many today to be unreachable. And we must think rigorously and debate fully to plan the path to our objectives. Such thinking will require that we understand fully the history that led us to this point and that we have a keen and accurate appreciation of where we are….

“The challenge before us is undoubtedly immense. Yes, part of our challenge is political, in the sense that any important and lasting progressive legal or constitutional advances must ultimately either grow out of or come to be supported by millions of people who will never file a motion, publish an article or perhaps even read a newspaper. But we will win that political battle if we are able to articulate our ideas and values in ways that are grounded in our Constitution and resonate with the public. The challenge is here for each of us –– academics, practitioners, advocates and policymakers –– to take up. If each of us joins the effort, we can and will together reframe the terms of the debate and recapture the initiative in defining our fundamental and guiding values. We cannot be daunted by the difficulties of our task. Too much is at stake: our Constitutional heritage, our Nation’s future and the quality of our lives will depend upon our success. “

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 9:54 am

Bowers is a blowhard. He doesn't even do his research and gets the facts wrong half the time. He makes the left look bad.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 10:24 am

Yes he is. Chris Bowers has no authority to even address this issue considering he was so very anti-Obama when he was at MyDD.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 10:27 am

Look, if we wanted to see Hillarys face for the next four years , we would have picked her as our nominee. It's just that simple. As for the others, we have no problem with them because they , unlike Hillary , know who they work for.

Thanks our beef.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 10:27 am

I like what President-elect Obama is doing. He's putting centrists in the spotlight, and bringing in the best of the progressive voices to round out his team. I love that he's bringing in such intelligent, and qualified people to serve in his cabinet. He's taking the steps necessary to move us in the right direction – a step at a time. Sure there are those liberals of us out here that would love to sprint to a new republic, but taking measured steps is wiser. It's been so wonderful listening to him speak, and to realize that we will soon have someone in the White House who is intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable, and insightful. It's a new day! And I'm still rejoicing.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 10:28 am

THAT's our beef not thanks.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 11:18 am

As a Progressive I am tired of the whineing from my side of the spectrum. How can we expect Obama to fight for what we want when all he hears are ungrateful brats. The Republicans tend to walk in lock step, which we are constitutionally and phycologically unable to do…but can't we at least use the brains god gave a goose? Just how will Obama get anything passed with nothing but Liberal faces and voices? Can we guarentee that we are going to get 60 in the senate? Also we need the better known and tried people out front. Obama said he decides the policies..if you doubt him now, why in the flip did you vote for him.

He is surrounding himself with real liberals who are the doers, not just the talkers..the ones that have been the warriors fighting the fight. In the last 30 years there has been two Democratic administrations….so all the experienced experts are Republicans. You want neophytes at a time like this, wars, terrorism, Depression, failing education and failing healthcare…and you want new faces?

So Please! Listen to what the man is saying, see what he has to do to clean this place up…and stand behind him like he said he would need…for ALL of us to fight along side him…or just shut up cause I am sick of the weak mewing of the Left.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

Obama spent the last 21 months saying we have to unite, we have to work together, we are one people. And now people are compaining because he's doing EXACTLY what he said. magine that, a politician who actually meant what he said! Get a grip, folks. He knows what he's doing.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

David Sirota has been a nay sayer about Barack Obama since just after the 2004 Democratic Convention when there was mention of Obama possibly being groomed to run for the presidency in 2008. So, given Sirota's history of negativity about Obama, his current comments are less than surprising.

I am a 57 y.o. white woman who has been a lesbian feminist considered since at least 1970. I consider being a progressive to be included in that political identity. I have been an avid follower of the politics in this nation since I was 15. I am also a fan of history. So, I feel quite confident in making the following statements and observations.

Frankly, I am sick and tired of the partisan politics that have served to divide this great nation of ours. I am disgusted with the red herrings thrown up by both the ideological right and the ideological left, for it is my belief that the red herrings only serve to keep us as Americans divided and thus vulnerable to the machinations of various corrupt and unethical power mongers. I have yet to see such politics to be of any positively useful purpose.

Folks such as Sirota may believe that their intentions are good and right for the country, but it is my observation that he and other “lefty” progressives are missing the forest for the trees. It is also my observation that he and many other “progressive” commentators are perpetually malcontent and think that their ideas and ways are the best and most right. Perhaps, he and some of the others should run for office and stop complaining from the sidelines.

Obama is putting into action exactly what he said he would do. He actually laid out his views quite clearly in his book, The Audacity of Hope”. Apparently, many of our progressive commentators have not read that book and were not really paying attention to what Obama has been saying since he began his quest for the presidency. One of his most critical goals all along has been to unify our nation and get away from intensely partisan politics.

As far as I can see at this point in time, he is surely putting into place the players that will help him achieve that goal.

So, I say to Sirota and others, stop your whining and nit picking commentary. Get a grip on yourselves. Smart though you may be, you don't represent the entire progressive community.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

“Whose job description is political salesmanship and whose job description is making and executing policy?” Sirota asked.

I'm going to suggest that “making” policy is not particularly part of the job description of cabinet secretaries. The most important policy decisions are going to be made in the White House. The Cabinet is generally involved in executing policy. Also – the domestic policy cabinet positions have largely not been filled yet.

what the??
Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

edwards is a phony. he had a chance to be a progressive when it mattered–when he was in government. he was not. he ran to the left because clinton and obama were sucking up all the air in the center and the right is a loser this year. edwards is like a shifty southern lawyer cliche from a grisham novel. and have you forgotten about his affair/love child scandal? his poitical career is over.
i think the general public is familiar with howard dean and dennis kucinich. the problem is they are actually liberals…

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 6:16 pm

Well said

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

Finally a President that is making decisions that reinforce the values of progression without bending to the will of his party lines. Obama is doing what is right for the country regardless of whether or not it makes him brownie points with party leaders. Just because conservatism hasn't been the best policy over the last 8 years doesn't mean that we need a total 180 to liberalism. It is clear from the Clinton years that a policy aligned in the middle does much more to serve the economy than a single party approach to economics. I was a bit reticent to side with Obama during the election season, but so far he is showing his true colors as a man who truly wants to do what is best for the most Americans. Props to our new Commander in Chief.

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

Some things like marriage relationships are private to be discussed by the persons involved. I don't pretend to be speaking for Elizabeth Edwards.
Other things like jobs, labor rights, the collaps of our economy, and government bailouts are public matters to be discussed by all Americans.
I don't want to see working Americans treated like the workers in “third world countries”.
“If we are not their voice, they will never have a voice.”
Watch the video:

Comment posted December 1, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

If the strategy is to go centrist and confirmable among cabinet positions and liberal/activist in advisory positions, then Obama should pick Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as an advisor. He would be ideal at working with cabinet officials of all kinds on beefing up legal compliance and engineering regulatory reform where the appropriate role of government has been neutralized since the Reagan Admininistration.

Comment posted December 7, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

Remember your Political Science 101 class. The Executive Office of the President (EOP) are the policy-makers (the thinkers that come up with what policy should be), the Cabinet positions and the policy implimentors (the movers and shakers that can get things done). Having all the EOP positions being filled with progressive minded intellectuals makes sure that the new ideas keep coming and flowing into the presidents ear. Once the new policy is determined, the practical minded centrists who have the will and know-how to make it happen will work with whoever they need to to make it happen.

Comment posted December 7, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

Remember your Political Science 101 class. The Executive Office of the President (EOP) are the policy-makers (the thinkers that come up with what policy should be), the Cabinet positions and the policy implimentors (the movers and shakers that can get things done). Having all the EOP positions being filled with progressive minded intellectuals makes sure that the new ideas keep coming and flowing into the presidents ear. Once the new policy is determined, the practical minded centrists who have the will and know-how to make it happen will work with whoever they need to to make it happen.

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