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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 MoveOn.org, William Ayers, and the Democratic left, he has a funny way of showing it. The only reasonable conclusion is he's spurning the left.
Obama has dozens of lesser posts to fill, and no doubt he'll use some of those jobs to assuage the left. Labor can probably have whomever it wants as secretary of labor. For all Obama's talk about education reform, chances are he'll bow to the teachers' lobby in choosing an education secretary. If former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle becomes health and human services secretary, that will please the single-payer crowd and the champions of more government-managed health care.
But financial markets are Obama's overriding concern as president-elect. In their eyes, he's acting president. In his postelection press conference on November 7, Obama said his aides would be monitoring markets and the economy. The transition, in other words, would be relaxed and unhurried.
Last week, Obama's tone had changed. He was alarmed. He held press conferences three days in a row. He said he'd be getting full daily briefings on what's happening on Wall Street and Main Street. "We don't intend to stumble into the next administration," he said.
In trying to give financial markets a sense of comfort and continuity about his priorities, Obama might have provided one further note of assurance: that he won't raise taxes in 2009 or 2010. He stopped short of that.
But he offered a signal. Interviewed on 60 Minutes, Obama said, "We shouldn't worry about the deficit next year or even the year after." Later he told reporters his advisers would recommend whether to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the well-to-do and on capital gains and dividends, or merely allow the cuts to be "not renewed" and thus expire at the end of 2010. With the door opened to leaving the cuts in place, shutting it would be hazardous. Keeping the cuts would enrage the left, but financial markets would appreciate the jolt.
By Fred Barnes
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard