Barack Obama’s selection of Eric Shinseki to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, a position that has only been Cabinet-level for 20 years, is receiving an unusual level of attention. This is understandable, given the celebrity that Mr. Shinseki has accrued these past five years, as his pre-invasion estimate that the U.S. had sent hundreds of thousands too few troops to Iraq has been sadly validated.
But it actually underscores an ironic trend in Mr. Obama’s initial wave of foreign policy and national security appointments: The man whose primary season success was rooted in his early opposition to the Iraq war isn’t exactly filling his inner circle with the anti-war crowd’s heroes.
This isn’t meant to disparage the role of V.A. secretary, which should take on added significance in the incoming administration, with Mr. Obama repeatedly promising as a candidate an extensive and expensive overhaul of the department’s health care system. But Mr. Obama is asking Mr. Shinseki to administer a bureaucracy, not to play a meaningful role in crafting military and foreign policy.
To many of his earliest supporters, the promise of Mr. Obama’s candidacy was that Mr. Shinseki and others like him who questioned the pre-war assumptions that both parties embraced would, in an Obama administration, have the president’s ear on the weightiest questions of national security.
Instead, they’ve now watched Mr. Obama choose Hillary Clinton, who as a presidential candidate denied that she’d actually voted for the war, as secretary of state; Robert Gates, George W. Bush’s man, as defense secretary; and James Jones, who not long ago dismissed the idea of timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, as his national security adviser. There are even suggestions now that Mr. Obama may ask General Michael Hayden, whose nomination as C.I.A. chief he voted against in 2006, to stay on.
A similar trend is evident in non-foreign policy areas, too. For instance, Larry Summers, tapped to serve as Mr. Obama’s chief economic advisor, and Tim Geithner, his pick for Treasury secretary, represent the more centrist, Wall Street-friendly wing of the Democratic Party that much of the base holds in disfavor. Where, the left is wondering, are the influential voices who will speak up on worker’s rights and income inequality?
The left’s faith in Barack Obama, the first “movement” candidate to win the party’s nomination since George McGovern in 1972 and the only one in the modern era to actually win the White House, is being put the test.
“Isn’t there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration?” Chris Bowers, a liberal blogger, told the Politico this week.
While understandable, this apprehension is probably misplaced. Sure, there’s a chance that Mr. Obama, derided this past year by the right as an empty slate who tried to mean all things to all people, has simply been leading the left on and is now morphing into a rudderless pragmatist who will break their hearts. But pragmatism doesn’t have to be rudderless. It’s just as easy to portray Mr. Obama’s early moves as a sign that he will be pragmatic about pursuing progressive goals.
Take the case of Mr. Shinseki, whose pre-war forecast led the Bush administration to ostracize him and nudge him into retirement, a chain of events that turned the previously unknown general into a folk hero to the left. Democrats in his native Hawaii, including Senator Daniel Inouye, actually tried to recruit him to run for governor there in 2006.
But this appeal cuts both ways. As much as a high-level appointment for Mr. Shinseki would represent to the left their triumph over the Bush administration and its enablers, it would also be a needless stick in the eye of many Republicans in Congress. So Mr. Obama appears to have compromised; by tapping Mr. Shinseki to run the V.A., he’s provided a sop to the left. But appointing him only to a low-profile post also makes it less likely that the poisonous politics of the Iraq war will intrude on his relations with Congress.
By all accounts, Mr. Obama is as intent as ever about pursuing the overarching foreign policy goals at the heart of his campaign: an end to the Iraq war, a heightened effort in Afghanistan, a vigorous push for dialogue with hostile nations, and renewed cooperation with traditional allies. When it comes to the specifics, selling this agenda to Congress and the American public will be far easier if Mr. Obama is surrounded by the likes of Mr. Gates, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Jones and maybe even Mr. Hayden, who will all make it much tougher for critics to paint Mr. Obama’s plans as somehow extreme or naïve.
The same can be applied to domestic politics. The left may despair of the absence of labor leaders or poverty activists from Mr. Obama’s early appointments, but how effective would they be in helping to build consensus and move legislation through Congress?
Mr. Obama’s supporters are justified in keeping close tabs on him. But his appointments so far should have given them no reason to believe that he’s anyone but the man they voted for.