Friday, November 21, 2008

A "New Deal" Model for President Obama's Cabinet

by Norman Markowitz

The press is filled with reports of Barack Obama's interest in historian Doris Kearns Godwin's The Rivals, a fascinating narrative history which deals with the Lincoln cabinet and Lincoln's bringing into that cabinet political rivals.

The work has been cited particularly as a kind of explanation for bringing Hillary Clinton and others into the cabinet.

There is a serious debate over this policy with some arguing fairly persuasive that it divided and undermined the Lincoln administration. Although I am tempted to join in that debate (as I am in many debates concerning U.S. political history) I will control myself, since it is not that issue in my opinion that is relevant to what President-Elect Obama is facing.

Lincoln's cabinet faced secession and Civil War. Obama faces the increasing possibility of a depression and the accumulated disasters of U.S. foreign policy, most dramatically the Bush "war against terrorism," occupation of Iraq, and fixation on unilateral military intervention as the basis of foreign policy.

The Roosevelt cabinet is a much better model. Along with regular Democrats (including the pompous Secretary of State, Cordell Hull) Roosevelt appointed progressives who had long struggled against reaction in U.S. politics. This included the new Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, a longtime progressive activist in Illinois politics and enemy of the Chicago machine. When Roosevelt asked Ickes how he should inform the Mayor of Chicago about the appointment, Ickes reputedly said " with an oxygen tent."

Roosevelt also appointed Henry A. Wallace, the son of a Republican Secretary of Agriculture, editor of a prominent newspaper for farmers, and advocate of a wide variety of agricultural policies aimed at production planning, soil conservation, and education to both protect working farmers and produce a more abundant agriculture.

From his own circles, Roosevelt appointed Francis Perkins, the first women to hold a cabinet position as Secretary of Labor. Perkins was a strong advocate of reforms like the abolition of child labor, which the Supreme Court had blocked in the past, and national economic planning in the interest of workers and consumers. Harry Hopkins a former social worker with the ability to get things done and a strong commitment to public works jobs ("work relief" as it was called at the time) served in a number of capacities, must importantly as the director of the Works Progress Administration, the most ambitious and successful program of Public employment in U.S. history. Others, including David E. Lillienthal, who served later as the director of the Tennessee Valley Authority(TVA) when it moved into a more progressive phase, were among the leadership cadre of the New Deal government, co-existing with traditional old line Democrats, including those who were unsympathetic to the New Deal as anything but a meal ticket for themselves.

Let me imagine that Obama would bring such people into his administration. Marion Wright Edelman, longtime leader of the Children's Defense Fund, might make an outstanding Secretary of Education. Lani Guinier, chief attorney for the NAACP in the battles to defend Civil Rights legislation from the Reagan administration (whom Clinton in a cowardly way abandoned for a government post in 1993 in the face of vicious attacks on her by Rush Limbaugh and other rightwingers) would be an excellent choice for Attorney General.

Doug Henwood or one of a whole group of progressive economists who have long challenged rightwing "neo liberal" economics might be a fine as a member of the President's "Brain Trust" of informal policy advisor's (a modern day Rexford Guy Tugwell) Richard Trumka, the former UMW president who eloquent denunciation of racism helped Obama win the election in Pennsylvania and Ohio (in my opinion) might be an excellent Secretary of Labor Lester Thurow, a prominent progressive economist with distinguished credentials might make a great chair of the Council of Economic advisor's.

These are a few suggestions in line with my general argument, that is, a New Deal model for the new cabinet. I am sure readers can come up with many others and may have specific objections to these, but this model, one of bringing in progressive outsiders with a record of achievement as against organization men and women makes more sense in this context than the Civil War model, because it is depression, perhaps the biggest in history that we are facing and bipartisanship and "national unity" with Republicans and organization and conservative Democrats (although the latter, as in the New Deal government, don't have to worry about being "left out") is not a realistic model for the new administration, given both those who elected it and also the crisis it faces.