The Cabinet

THE CABINET…. Barack Obama’s cabinet will have the heads of 15 executive agencies (Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs.) It will also likely feature at least three cabinet-level officers (EPA administrator, OMB director, and U.S. Trade Representative).

This week, we started to get a sense of what Obama’s team is going to look like, but only a sense. To date, the transition team has formally announced the name of exactly zero members. That said, we can probably safely predict, given what’s been widely reported, the names of five of the 15 cabinet secretaries — Daschle at HHS, Napolitano at DHS, Holder at Justice, Clinton at State, and Geithner at Treasury. We can also say with some certainty that Orszag is headed to OMB. Gates seems like a likely pick at the Pentagon, and the odds look pretty good for Richardson at Commerce, but that still leaves eight cabinet vacant slots and two vacant cabinet-level slots.

What can we conclude about what we know so far? It’s a question open to some interpretation.

Hilzoy mentioned last night she’s “quite impressed” with how the cabinet is shaping up, adding that the team features “some very, very impressive people,” and noting that it’s reassuring to “have a grownup in charge.” I agree with all of this wholeheartedly. The team, at this point, features nothing but capable, competent, and experienced officials. They will, without a doubt, serve the nation well.

There are, however, political considerations. Chris Bowers expressed his frustration with the lack of ideological balance.

Even after two landslide elections in a row, are our only governing options as a nation either all right-wing Republicans, or a centrist mixture of Democrats and Republicans? Isn’t there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration? Also, why isn’t there a single member of Obama’s cabinet who will be advising him from the left? It seems to me as though there is a team of rivals, except for the left, which is left off the team entirely.

Chris Hayes added, “Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one.”

I’m probably not quite as frustrated as Bowers and Hayes, at least not yet, but their point is well taken. Democrats are in ascendance. It’s a center-left nation, arguably for the first in many years. Obama is the most progressive president in at least a generation. A cabinet of centrist Democrats and a sane Republican or two seems wholly incomplete.

So why aren’t I more frustrated? Several reasons, actually.

First, even with the near-certain names that have been leaked, I don’t have the foggiest idea who’ll fill more than half of Obama’s cabinet. I’m inclined to wait and see. We’ll have a much better sense of the rest of the team soon enough.

Second, cabinet secretaries won’t be the only ones with access to Obama’s ear, and some of the top aides in the White House — Gaspard, Rouse, Schiliro, Axelrod — include some great people I do consider pretty liberal.

Third, I’m not especially surprised by any of the choices thus far. The truth is, Obama campaigned as a pragmatist. He seems to like wonks and technocrats, and has always emphasized competence and results while downplaying ideology. That’s who he is; it seems to work for him.

And fourth, my goal is to see Obama push progressive policies; whether he uses progressive people to achieve these goals is important but secondary. Is Tom Daschle a dyed-in-the-wool liberal? Probably not. But if his role at HHS helps make a major healthcare reform initiative more likely — and I believe it does — his position on the ideological spectrum is less consequential.

Indeed, in the three weeks since the election, I’ve seen little evidence that Obama’s progressive policy agenda has changed in any meaningful way. He still appears committed to a national healthcare push; he gave a video address on climate change last week that sounded very encouraging; and he spoke just this morning about an economic stimulus effort that includes considerable spending on infrastructure. This doesn’t sound like a move to the “center”; it sounds like a set of ambitious, progressive ideas.

Yglesias had a good item on this earlier today:

Putting reassuring faces on an agenda of ambitious policy change strikes me as dramatically preferable to appointing a lot of liberals whose job is to sell the progressive base on the need to trim and abandon campaign commitments. […]

If universal health care, a clean energy economy, withdrawal of troops from Iraq, an end to torture, and massive new infrastructure investments are a “center-right” agenda because Tim Geithner is Secretary of Treausry then I’ll take it. The crux of the matter is to keep pressing for the agenda.