Friday, December 19, 2008

Obama so far

One month from tomorrow, at high noon, Barack Obama will repeat the 35-word oath of office, which is prescribed specifically in the Constitution, on the steps of the US Capitol. He will likely tack on the postscript of "So help me God," as has been the practice of all recent presidents. In the weeks since Election Day, the president-elect has overseen an extremely orderly transition, taking the podium almost daily to name top appointments and to take questions from the media. It is all somewhat reassuring. Meanwhile, the nation's economic condition slides into even deeper distress and the current chief executive's only newsworthy action in the past six months was to duck from a flying piece of footwear flung furiously in his direction.

Obama's picks have disappointed some on the left, and I do long for a dream team of progressives taking over the controls of our government's mammoth bureaucracies. I am, however, inclined at this stage to sit back and give wide berth to the incoming president. He is, as most have acknowledged, a pretty bright guy, and he does operate -- as evidenced by the campaign and the transition -- in a smartly-conceived and well-executed manner. He gets to select who surrounds him, and by all accounts he's selected an exceptionally qualified and able group. If they aren't liberal enough on face, then I expect that they will be carrying out the policies of this president, and therefore will generally do the right thing.

But, of course, it has been clear all along that Obama does have many centrist, bridge-building tendencies. Those of us on the left will, I suspect, find ourselves in disagreement with the new administration from time to time. There will be attempts to find common ground rather than ramming through Democratic party ideas just because our party's nominee won the top spot. It's a bit frustrating because the Republicans, especially under George W. Bush, have done (and are still doing in last-minute executive orders) exactly that. Again and again, they talk bipartisanship and then lunge to the right. I take Obama at his word when he says he wants to change that culture.

The most extreme example may be the revelation that Rick Warren will be delivering the invocation at the inauguration. The minister of America's most well-known megachurch (Saddleback in Orange County, Calif.) and the author of the bestselling book"The Purpose-Driven Life," Warren is the new face of evangelical Christianity. Less outwardly prim and proper, he has been a key part of a movement that has focused on some good things in recent years, like working against poverty and hunger in Africa or embracing environmentalism. Still, in many ways, the new boss is the same as the old boss: homosexuality is seen as sinful; atheists are evil; etc.

Warren is a maddening choice for many who voted Democratic in November, and still it may be a brilliant selection in other ways. Obama has made the usual claim of being president of all Americans, not just those who voted for him; maybe this is one way to demonstrate that. He is also showing quite clearly that he will not hesitate to anger his base when he wants to. He is repaying Warren for inviting him to the Saddleback Forum, the pre-election interviews that Warren did with Obama and John McCain at the church in August (where McCain gave brief talking-point answers that he knew the crowd would applaud and Obama gave longer, more intelligent, nuanced responses that sometimes flew in the face of what the audience wanted to hear).

Finally, there is the "Team of Rivals" strategy, as discussed in the Doris Kearns Goodwin book as it relates to Abraham Lincoln. In other settings, with slight tweaks, it might be understood as the "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" strategy. Obama wants to accomplish important things, and after the first 100 days -- maybe more, maybe less -- the novelty, the honeymoon and the perception of a mandate will all wear off and the broad support of the public will be necessary to overcome the usual gridlock, partisanship and the lack of a filibuster-proof Senate.

A year down the road the 44th president might turn to the two Republicans in his cabinet (Robert Gates and Ray LaHood) or to the senator whose committee chairmanship he saved (Joe Lieberman) or to his former Democratic opponent turned cabinet member (Hillary Clinton) or, even, to the leader of one of the largest evangelical congregations in the country. Each of them, to varying degrees, will feel some obligation to jump on board with the president.

Is Obama thinking that far ahead? Is he really that smart? I think he is.

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