The Magazine

The Obama Jolt

Is Barack a secret centrist?

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By FRED BARNES
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Barack Obama wants to give the economy a jolt. So far, though, the biggest jolt we've seen is the one the economy has given to Obama. That jolt, in the form of a plummeting stock market, upset Obama's desire for a leisurely transition. It made him virtually America's acting president.

Obama is fond of saying-he said it again last week-that the country has only one president at a time, and until January 20 it's George W. Bush. True enough, but financial markets don't look at Washington that way. They focus on the future, and that means Obama. Financial markets demanded at least some comforting hints about Obama's plans for reversing the economic downturn.

Reluctantly, Obama has begun to provide them. But it took a 900-point dip in the stock market, plus persistent pleas, for Obama to act. After two days of market collapse, his aides spread the word that Obama's choice for secretary of the Treasury would be Timothy Geithner, the head of the Federal Reserve in New York.

Last week, Obama made his choice of Geithner official. And he named former Treasury secretary Larry Summers his top economic counselor at the White House and chose a monetarist, Christina Romer of the University of California at Berkeley, as the head of the Council of Economic Advisers. The stock market rallied. This was change financial markets could believe in.

There's a larger point here. It's not that Obama, despite his unswervingly liberal record in the Senate, turns out to be a pragmatist. The point is he's pragmatic (so far) in one direction-rightward. Who knew?

His national security choices also underscore this point. Hillary Clinton benefits from not being John Kerry, who desperately wants to be secretary of state. And Obama owes Kerry for having lifted him from obscurity and made him keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention. But knowing Kerry, Obama looked elsewhere and fastened on Clinton as his secretary of state.

Clinton, for all her shortcomings, doesn't hail from the surrender-at-all-costs wing of the Democratic party. Nor does retired Marine general Jim Jones, who's slated to be Obama's national security adviser. Jones, an Iraq war skeptic, is a strong supporter of offshore drilling and other steps to increase domestic production of oil and gas.

Then there's Bob Gates, Bush's defense secretary. Obama wants to keep him at the Pentagon for another year. Liberals and the media like Gates because he replaced the man they loved to hate, Donald Rumsfeld. But Gates is no dove and no ally of the antiwar left.

So the scoreboard looks like this: Three of the four cabinet posts that matter most are going to those with views acceptable to the center-right of the Democratic party. That's Geithner, Clinton, and Gates. The fourth, attorney general, will provoke a confirmation fight if Obama chooses his buddy Eric Holder, famous as President Clinton's deputy attorney general for facilitating the pardon of Marc Rich.

Three out of four isn't bad. Conservatives aren't jumping for joy. But imagine how the left wing of the Democratic party-the dominant wing, after all-feels. Let down would be an understatement.

Organized labor must be crazed over the selection of Summers. As a believer in the indispensability of global trade, Summers is bound to advise Obama to reject labor's call for limitations on trade, especially during a world financial breakdown. In fact, I suspect he's already urged Obama to go along with "card check," labor's latest scheme for unionizing workers, but not the protectionist agenda. Tinkering with trade would unsettle financial markets.

And how about the environmental lobby, which totally embraced Obama? Jones will be hard for environmentalists to stomach. And the foreign policy left? The left views Jones, Clinton, and Gates as enemies.

The losers in the Obama administration, as of now, are Joe Biden and Susan Rice, favorites of the left. Biden's role in foreign policy is likely to be minimal with Clinton at the State Department. She'll squash him if he sticks his head up. Rice, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration and an Obama campaign adviser, may wind up as United Nations ambassador, a highly visible but inconsequential post. She'll have little influence.

The Washington cliché about appointments is that personnel is policy. It's an exaggeration but essentially true. If Obama wants to pursue economic and national security policies that would thrill, William Ayers, and the Democratic left, he has a funny way of showing it. The only reasonable conclusion is he's spurning the left.