July's Lowdown

July 2008, Volume 10, Number 7

Edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer


We'll send him your picks for the pyramid of power

If Obama wins, who will be on his team--and who should be?


There'll be a crush of cameras at the front door of the White House on January 20 as scores of media outlets scramble to record the moment that the new president walks in. But, wait--who're those people who'll be sliding in quietly behind him? They're the ones who'll spend the next four years whispering in the president's ear, sitting in strategy sessions, running presidential councils, filling agency slots, and pulling the levers of executive power. They'll make up "The Administration," and they'll affect everything from economic policies to war, so it's worth getting a sense of them in advance of the election.

For a clue as to what kinds of people either McCain or Obama would carry into office, look at the top campaign advisors, fund raisers, and staffers already around them, for they're likely to move right along with their man. These people both reflect and shape a president's agenda, sometimes wielding the influence to alter both the overall direction and specific substance of a presidency.

Take the corporatization of Bill Clinton's administration. He had run a populist-minded campaign in 1992, pledging to challenge corporate greed and promising to be the president of working families. Come '93, however, such corporate hands as Robert Rubin were awarded strategic positions. A prince of Wall Street who'd been one the campaign's top fund raisers, Rubin was ensconced as head of Clinton's economic council--and he served there as corporate America's inside hit man, responsible for taking populist proposals down into a dark basement and throttling them.

In his first State of the Union speech, for example, Clinton proposed that tax write-offs for a corporate CEO's bloated paycheck be limited to "only" the first million bucks. The very next night, CEOs of several major corporations swarmed Rubin at a Manhattan dinner, wailing about Clinton's "cheap populism." Rubin, who'd been a $26-million man at Goldman Sachs, definitely felt their pain, and he smoothed their ruffled feathers with these words: "That's not the real Bill Clinton."

Apparently not. With Rubin counseling that it wasn't good to make CEOs jittery, Clinton immediately dropped the idea. He never brought it up again.

"Tell me with whom you walk," goes the old adage, "and I'll tell you who you are." Who is walking with McCain and Obama? While it's fun to speculate about who might be the vice-president choices of this year's candidates (and you can join the fun on page 3), it's more instructive to rummage through the names on the campaign teams to see who might go inside with the winner. This month we'll give you a tour of Obama's brain trust, and in the August issue we'll look into the McCain campaign.

The Obama watch

If progressives look at Obama's team through the conventional political lens, they'll get worried. With some exceptions, these are not the policy people you'd expect to see--they're not a phalanx of solid, progressive activists/thinkers/leaders with recognizable names. Some O-teamers are even graduates of the University of Chicago's economics department, home of laissez-faire guru Milton Friedman; some are tied to Robert Rubin (Rubin himself is a sometime advisor); a few hail directly from the ranks of corporate America.

Before panicking, however, let's note that little about the Obama campaign is conventional. My personal impression is that he intends to be a serious president who's willing to experiment in order to come up with policies and programs that actually achieve progressive goals, rather than merely rubberstamping the long-preserved agendas of Washington-based Democratic-party insiders.

The upside of his having little Washington experience is that he's free of its constraints and more open to grassroots ideas and unconventional thinking. Obama seems to see the next four years as a transformative opportunity for our country--a time to make a generational change in leadership, to break with bipartisan corporatism and global saber-rattling, to restore a sense of common purpose (through such big initiatives as universal health care and rebuilding America's infrastructure), to adopt an approach to governing that tries to bring outsiders inside, and to link the democratic potential of the internet to America's historic pursuit of egalitarianism.

No small task. To get there, he has assembled advisors and staff who can help him find and nurture ideas that work. His people are mostly young, nonideological, pragmatic, expert in their fields, often wonkish, and willing to go against established opinion (of either the right or left). This is different, it's risky, and it's exciting.

The glue for this team is not its uniform progressive credentials, but Obama himself. Again: This is risky. I might have to eat these words later, but I think he has a deep core of progressive values, honed by his life experience as a global child and a community organizer. Accordingly, he seems to have assembled people around him who have the expertise to help him make the big changes he has in mind. He's the rudder, they're the sails.

What Obama calls "old politics"

Old Congress critters never die, they just go to K Street.

Take Dennis Hastert. Actually, he's already taken. The longtime Republican lawmaker retired last November, but rather than return to Illinois, he has alighted just a few blocks from the Capitol at the blue-chip lobbying firm of Dickstein Shapiro. The firm lured Hastert with more than half a million bucks in annual pay, designating him "strategic counselor" on the legislative needs of its corporate clientele. [read more...]

PERSONAL DIGRESSION: I relate to this. When I was elected Texas ag commissioner in 1982, I knew I wanted to help small farmers, workers,consumers, and the environment. But I needed people who actually knew what to do to make a real-life difference for this broad constituency. So we brought together a diverse staff, ranging from corporate food marketers to community organizers, and I gave them the same mandate that Franklin Roosevelt gave to his team in 1933: Do something. If it works, do it some more. If it doesn't work, do something else.

Here are a few of the Obama people:

  • Jason Furman. Because of his pro-corporate connections and comments, Furman is the guy who most alarms labor, fair-trade activists, and other progressives (like me). Recently designated Obama's top economics aide, this 37-year-old Harvard-educated academic has found nice things to say about the Wal-Mart business model, has supported the corporate trade agenda, and most recently has headed a policy-research outfit founded by Robert Rubin. Yet, it turns out that Furman is not quite the corporate snake that some would make him. His background also includes an important stint with the highly progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where he churned out hard-hitting, influential policy papers on the rising danger of income inequality, the need to raise the minimum wage, the disaster of Bush's tax cuts, and the necessity of stopping the privatization of Social Security. He's no populist, but neither is he a sneaky Rubinaut, and his selection has been warmly endorsed by liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz (with whom Furman has worked), labor economist Jared Bernstein, and populist economist James Galbraith--all three of whom are also on the Obama team.
  • Austan Goolsbee. An economics prof at the Chicago school of business, this 38-year-old has been a top Obama advisor since the 2004 U.S. senate campaign. A centrist, Goolsbee has been senior economist to the Democratic Leadership Council, the party's corporate wing, which gave us Bill Clinton. He popped into public view this spring when a Canadian memo suggested that he had a backdoor (and unauthorized) meeting with officials there to assure them that Obama's tough campaign talk about the disaster of NAFTA had more to do with politics than policy. Obama disavowed Goolsbee's approach, and the advisor's star has since faded, but the matter of who's influencing the senator's trade policy has caused activists to be "VERY CONCERNED," as one put it.

    Another Obama trade aide, Daniel Tarullo of Georgetown University, was part of the Clinton team that produced NAFTA and the WTO, so this is an area where grassroots forces will have to buck up Obama. But we should also note that one of the best labor leaders on trade policy, Bruce Raynor of UNITE HERE, says that the senator "has been with us from day one." Moreover, Obama himself says that while he supports the idea of trade agreements, he is determined to find new ways to make them work for labor, farmers, and others who're now paying a "devastating" cost for corporate deals.

  • Dan Carol. A recent addition and a big plus, this 50-year-old Oregonian is a longtime progressive strategist, a pioneer in internet organizing, a proponent of grassroots-based policy development, a believer in the politics of big ideas, and an unabashed advocate of making political action fun. (DISCLOSURE: Carol is a friend of mine and was a key organizer of our Rolling Thunder Downhome Democracy Tour a few years ago). He's been a strategist for MoveOn, True Majority, and the Oregon Bus Project, among other innovative grassroots efforts, and he's now been brought onto the O-team as "director of content and issues."

    Name that VEEP!

    WHY SHOULD STAID OLD PUNDITS have all the fun in political guessing games? Let's bring you into play.

    Join us in taking the Lowdown Presidential Survey--a free-wheeling, thoroughly unscientific poll, asking you Lowdowners to designate people who might serve as officials in the next presidency. We want to know your choice for vice president, of course but don't stop there --who should serve in other key positions, from FEMA director to Supreme Court? [read more...]

    That's a fuzzy title, but I do know that he'll be a major force in pushing one of Obama's signature ideas: a "Green Deal" that would enlist the American people themselves to build a green infrastructure all across America, creating millions of new conservation and renewable energy jobs, reviving our grassroots economy, and achieving energy independence. This would be a multibillion-dollar national effort derived from the successful community-based projects already underway through the Apollo Alliance (see Lowdown, January 2002). Such solid, progressive thinkers and activists as Van Jones of California and Joel Rogers of Wisconsin are also enlisted in this exciting aspect of Obama's campaign.

  • Lawrence Lessig. A Stanford law professor, Lessig specializes in internet law. Until now, an "internet advisor" hasn't been at the center of any presidential campaign, much less played a central role on a White House staff, but this use of the web is a political and governmental tool that Obama has elevated to heights unimagined even four years ago. We know about the dramatic fund-raising and organizing advances his campaign has made through the web. But his tech initiative doesn't stop there. He intends to use the power of cyberspace to advance some of his biggest goals, ranging from lowering heathcare costs to increasing citizens' direct input into governance. To help guide this transformation, the campaign has enlisted Lessig, a visionary advocate for free public access to the internet and a renowned defender of the people's online rights against the grasp of corporate control. He serves on the boards of such forward-looking groups as Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge, and his presence in the campaign signals Obama's seriousness about advancing the democratic potential of this technology.
  • Lee Hamilton. A moderate internationalist (as opposed to a corporate globalist), this former Democratic House member from Indiana has no formal role in the campaign, but his realist foreign policy outlook and his non-ideological, often-contrarian approach to foreign policy issues predominate in Obama's camp. The Senator frequently seeks Hamilton's counsel, and four former Hamilton aides have taken top foreign policy spots in the campaign.

    Obama slip-sliding away?

    Mixed emotions are what you experience when you see your 16-year-old daughter come home from the prom with a Gideon Bible under her arm.

    You get mixed emotions watching Barack Obama. While he clearly has progressive instincts and a phenomenal potential to be this century's FDR, he sometimes shows up carrying the Holy Bible of Corporatized Politics-As-Usual under his arm. [read more...]

    When Obama shocked Washington's conventional wisdom this spring by saying that he would be willing as president to talk with such declared U.S. enemies as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this "radical" idea was right in line with Hamilton's own pragmatic view. Other key advisors on foreign issues include Susan Rice, Richard Danzig, and Tony Lake, all alumnae of the Clinton presidency. They, too, are pragmatists--for example, they considered Bush's rationalization for invading and occupying Iraq to be nonsense, leading them to oppose it from the start. This pitted them directly against senior Clintonites who were cowed by Bush's warmongering, fearing that Democratic opposition to the war was bad politics. Also on Obama's team are two foreign policy mavericks--Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan who has since become a vocal proponent of slashing the waste and fraud in the Pentagon budget, and Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism insider who blew the whistle on the Bushites' disastrous war fantasies and failures.

There are, of course, many more players who would mold Obama's White House agenda--including the very smart, very passionate, and very progressive Michelle Obama. There would also be the usual forces of caution, inertia, and recalcitrance dragging him down, ranging from don't-rock-the-boat Democratic elders to Washington's army of corporate lobbyists. Generally speaking, though, he has brought together a crew that is youthful (both in age and perspective), highly-knowledgeable, free-thinking, and imbued with progressive ideals.

The substance of an Obama presidency--and its degree of progressivity--will not be determined by these advisors. They are mostly implementers, who'll be guided by his own idealism and willingness to be bold. And that'll ultimately be determined by the insistent demands and steady involvement of the energized grassroots constituency that has propelled him this far.



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