The more I learn of President-elect Obama’s cabinet and sub-cabinet appointees, the more I gain confidence that Obama could be a great president.  The centrist approach he appears to be taking is a winning approach, both for the country and electorally.  The team being assembled, with few exceptions, seems to be extremely capable and ideologically moderate.  The foreign policy team in particular is looking extremely good.  While I might question whether Hillary Clinton is the best choice to be Secretary of State, her apparent selection is a mainstream appointment, as would General Jones be as National Security Advisor.  The apparent decision to keep Defense Secretary Gates in his position for at least a year is also most welcome news.

These appointments are welcome because they represent an Obama that wasn’t evident during the primary, when to a large extent he campaigned for and ultimately won the pacifist vote, for lack of a better term.  He went for and won the voters who were opposed to the Iraq war and wanted out, full stop.  By contrast Hillary became the “war” candidate, taking a less strident position on the withdrawal of troops.  That Obama is appointing a team more in line with her campaign than his is comforting to me as it is, in my opinion, the more responsible approach.  My biggest concern during the campaign was what I considered to be Obama’s completely irresponsible position on withdrawal from Iraq.  

I remain disappointed in candidates that cannot run more transparent campaigns–running on who you really are and what you really believe in rather than on what you think voters are looking for or what it takes to win.  Obama clearly ran such a campaign–dishonest might not be too strong term.  So-called “progressives” or the “pacifist” wing might have a justifiable gripe with the man.  From my perspective, at least on this issue, I am gratified that he’s apparently about to do the right thing now that the campaign is over.  It is indeed good for the country.

In this vein, E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post yesterday makes an argument that President-elect Obama is beginning to look very similar to President Bush.  Not President George W. Bush but his father, President George H.W. Bush.  Here’s an excerpt from the column entitled Obama’s Bush Doctrine:    

What’s most striking about Obama’s approach to foreign policy is that he is less an idealist than a realist who would advance American interests by diplomacy, by working to improve the country’s image abroad, and by using military force prudently and cautiously.

This sounds a lot like the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, and it makes perfect sense that Obama has had conversations with the senior Bush’s closest foreign policy adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Obama has drawn counsel from many in Scowcroft’s circle, and Gates himself was deputy national security adviser under Scowcroft.

Dionne also observes that Obama’s worldview was largely “hidden in plain sight” during the campaign.  While Dionne notes that Obama did indeed severely criticize the Iraq War, Obama also made the case during the campaign for “justified” war.  Perhaps Obama was more transparent than I just accused him of being after all.

There are a number of additional appointments to be made to the administration about which I remain very concerned.  They are the appointments of the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (EPA).  All three will have an enormous impact on our country’s energy policy and its ability to create a policy that rationally addresses the energy and environmental challenges faced by the country.  In my view, the Secretary of Energy’s first duty should be as the country’s spokesman-in-chief on the country’s energy policy, selling hard policy decisions and educating as much as anything else.  The implementers of that policy, however, will be as they always have been the Interior Secretary and EPA chief.  A rogue appointment in any or all of these positions could wreak havoc on the ability of the country to achieve a rational and viable energy policy.

In terms of the speculation about these positions I reference an article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled EPA, Interior Dept. Chiefs Will Be Busy Erasing Bush’s Mark.  That headline isn’t a good sign about what’s to come.  I know that rap is that Bush has allowed rape of the nation’s public land and allowed polluters free reign.  The truth is considerably different.  Sure, environmental groups are angry, but a rational energy policy will require that every interest group be a little bit angry.  The speculation seems to be that the Obama appointments will leave environmentalists dancing in the streets.  If that indeed happens, woe to the country and it’s energy future.  It will have meant that we aren’t making rational decisions but environmentally popular ones. 

What people fail to realize is that national security needs to be part of every public lands decision.  While it’s easy to suspect that the opening of public lands to oil and natural gas development in the west is simply about Republicans doing favors for their friends in the energy industry, it is much more about reducing the country’s dependence upon imported oil.  This country pays a very dear price for that foreign dependence, including, I would argue, every death that has resulted from the war in Iraq.  There is no justification for a single death that is consequence of our thirst for oil.  Beyond conservation and an all-out effort to develop substitute fuels, the country MUST develop in a much more robust way than it has done in the past (yes, even under Bush) to develop its own domestic oil and natural gas resources.  There is no other rational choice.  Yes, we wouldn’t do it in an ideal world, but we aren’t living in an ideal world.  We have to make tough choices and developing America’s domestic oil and natural gas resources is one of those tough but necessary choices until the day comes that our country’s economy is no longer as reliant as it is on carbon based fuels.  It is fantasy to think that by reducing domestic production we can bring the “renewable future” into existence sooner.  We can’t.  We will only bring about more imports and all of their adverse consequences (economic, environmental, national security).

So, bringing me back to the point of all of this, the appointments at Interior, Energy and EPA are indeed important ones.  The appointees need to be able to see the entire picture, not just the narrow picture that the traditional environmental groups would have us see.  Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that any of the names being publicly mentioned for these positions are leaders if this kind.  Here’s an excerpt from the above-referenced Washington Post story of those being talked about for Interior Secretary:   

The list for Interior is almost as long. Two House Democrats, Raul M. Grijalva (Ariz.) and Mike Thompson (Calif.) are contenders, but Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe, as well as three former Interior officials — David Hayes, John Leshy and Clark at Defenders of Wildlife — have all been mentioned.

I’d argue that each of those individuals mentioned above would likely have a focus that is entirely too much Sierra Club Newsletter and not enough Foreign Policy Magazine.  Let’s hope that Obama surprises here, too, and brings us people with new and different perspectives and who are capable of making the tough decisions and listening to all sides of an issue before deciding.  A first step is realizing that while Bush Administration policies in these areas were far from perfect all of the time (deeply flawed is perhaps a better way of putting it) they were often right as well and a complete reversal of course would not be good for the country.  

For now, we must wait and see.