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Commentary: Why Obama's picks will make Bill Clinton smile

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Many have invoked the concept of a "team of rivals"
  • He says Obama's administration is really a "team of centrists"
  • Zelizer: Obama has taken centrist stands and is drawing on Clinton-era people
  • He says expected appointment of Hillary Clinton fits the mold
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.

Julian Zelizer says Obama's team is shaping up as a group of Clinton-era centrists.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Many observers use historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's term, "A Team of Rivals," to describe the Cabinet that President-elect Barack Obama is assembling.

They use the term to characterize choices like former Obama opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton -- expected to be nominated Monday as secretary of state -- and current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is being asked to stay on by Obama.

But a more useful term might be a team of centrists. The most striking characteristic of the current lineup is how the personalities reflect the centrist vision of the Democratic Party promoted by Bill Clinton and his colleagues at the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s.

Obama has called on experts who aggressively promoted globalization and deregulation on economic matters, pushed for welfare reform, and accepted the necessity of military force and a strong defense. There are exceptions, but overall thus far, it appears Obama will be advised from the center.

Some of Obama's core supporters are surprised and upset with his choices, while others say his choices are a logical reaction to the crises facing his administration.

A close look at Obama's development since 2004 suggests centrism should have been expected. There is little evidence beyond his history as a community organizer to indicate Obama is left of center.

That's part of the irony of the attacks made by Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin against Obama for his association with 1960s radicals and statements about progressive taxation.

When Obama was introduced to the national scene at the 2004 Democratic Convention, his keynote speech focused on the need to overcome political polarization and long-standing divisions. In the most famous part of the speech, Obama said, "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America."

This is far from the rallying cries of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who has enthusiastically defended the liberal tradition of his party.

During his presidential campaign in 2008, Obama's policy proposals were not at all radical. Indeed, many of his key positions looked much more like those of Bill Clinton than of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson.

Obama's health care proposal, for instance, centered on requiring employers to cover more workers and creating a health insurance exchange that would offer citizens more options. He has said he will work hard to lower costs and make systems more efficient.

This is quite different from the national health insurance program President Truman and other liberal Democrats fought for in earlier generations.

On the foreign policy front, even though Obama took a strong stand against the Iraq War, he is no dove and supported the aggressive use of military force to deal with al Qaeda in places like Afghanistan.

After the election, in one of his first major decisions directly related to the composition of Congress, Obama sent clear signals to Sen. Harry Reid, who had threatened to punish Sen. Joe Lieberman for supporting McCain in the presidential election.

Obama indicated he wanted to leave Lieberman alone. The choice made a good deal of sense, given his hope to keep DLC Democrats inside his governing coalition.

And now his Cabinet is drawing on a cast almost directly out of the Clinton White House. Sure, it makes sense for Obama to draw on expertise from the most recent Democratic administration. But the choices also suggest ideological preferences.

With Rahm Emanuel by his side, Obama picked an economics team that includes individuals such as Lawrence Summers, Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag who are firmly rooted in DLC principles that emphasize nurturing global markets and restraining government regulation.

In another sign of his centrism, Obama has already talked about cutting government programs. He has also given a consultative role to the economist Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board under Presidents Carter and Reagan, who famously tamed inflation by tolerating unemployment and recession and their human consequences.

Now we are seeing that as a result of Obama's Cabinet choices, his foreign policies are likely to veer toward the center. Sen. Clinton, the Democrat whom Obama derided throughout the primaries for hawkish positions on Iraq, will probably become secretary of state.

Secretary of Defense Gates, who promoted regime change when working for President Reagan in the 1980s and has defended the current course of the war in Iraq, is expected to remain in place. Retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones is expected to be named White House national security adviser.

With last week's events in India, the pressure will increase to take a more proactive stand against terrorist networks and allied nation-states.

We can expect Obama to make more appointments that please the left, but the general tenor of his Cabinet will be Democratic centrist. The irony is that Bill Clinton, once dismissed as a popular president who lacked any core principles and who would not have much of a lasting effect, is now looking like a president who will cast a long shadow over the Democratic Party.

This should not be taken to mean an Obama administration will just be "Bush lite." The past eight years of rightward-leaning Republican administration have shown stark differences with the Democratic centrists of the 1990s.

Obama might very well break with his past by using this centrist team to promote left-of-center policies, but odds are he will continue building his program around the legacy of his centrist predecessor, Bill Clinton, who is probably smiling just a little more as he watches this new White House take shape.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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