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Progressive Circle Forming Around Obama


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.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration 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.”

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