Reading the tea-leaves on Obama’s national security staffing
Everybody’s wrestling with the same questions. On natsec, just like with the economic team, Obama is appointing relatively centrist, establishment figures. What are we supposed to make of this?
One interpretation is that Obama is abandoning the progressivism he displayed in the primary and opting for a cautious, centrist policy path. Another is that the establishment figures have, by signing on with Obama, chosen to endorse and work on behalf of Obama’s agenda, not the other way around. Yet a third interpretation is that Obama thinks the second interpretation is true, but in practice "staff is policy" and the caution and hawkish instincts of his appointees will inevitably color his decisionmaking. A fourth interpretation is that Obama is appointing establishment figures at the top, but appointing his own new-school crew in second-tier positions where they’ll do all the real work while the public faces at the top mollify conservatives and pundits.
My own guess is that Obama’s a step ahead of everyone else, again, doing just what he did in the campaign: Rather than attempting to drive the country overtly to the left, he’s making left the new center. Appointing centrist, establishment figures to carry out his agenda is a way of saying, “Look. This is where the center is now. This is the establishment now.”
Which interpretation is true? Nobody really knows — we’ll find out when some actual policy happens.
On the question of climate and energy, most of the attention has focused on Clinton and Jones. Clinton, whose instincts on climate and energy are largely good, will be dealing with international climate negotiations as SecState, so that’s all to the good.
Jones is more worrisome. His work on energy was done with the Institute for 21st Century Energy, an offshoot of the Chamber of Commerce that reflects its biases toward supply over demand and "energy independence" over climate change.
Still, Keith Johnson of WSJ goes way overboard:
By tapping General James Jones as his national security adviser, President-elect Barack Obama is indicating that the great energy debate will take place at the epicenter of U.S. national security — and that the outcome of that debate will look more like "all of the above" and less like a "green revolution."
Eh. Is that the most obvious conclusion? Obama’s been harping on the green revolution his entire presidential campaign and in every speech and press conference since. But his appointment to natsec adviser indicates he’s going another direction?
Isn’t it just as easy to claim that Jones’ previous work reflected the priorities of the organization that commissioned it? That in taking this position he, rather than Obama, is signaling a shift in thinking on energy?
The other worry du jour is that Obama didn’t announce an Energy Secretary as part of his national security team. On that score, I agree with Brad Plumer that "it’s likely we’re just bored reporters over-interpreting the transitional tea-leaves, but throwing an energy secretary into the mix today would have been a welcome gesture."
Ultimately this comes down, yet again, to how much you trust Obama. Maybe he’s got a bold green agenda in mind and he’s implementing it by putting a centrist, establishment face on it. Maybe his commitment to a green agenda is wishy-washy and his appointments reveal that. We’ll find out soon enough.