Much of the talk about liberal anger over Barack Obama’s Cabinet choices has been overblown, but with his two latest picks it sure feels as though Obama is indulging in some ostentatious prudence or moderation. Ken Salazar at Interior and Tom Vilsack at Agriculture are obvious choices — prominent, uncontroversial Democrats from regions that are disproportionately affected by the portfolios they’ll be taking on. That means they’re versed in the issues, but unlikely to support sweeping change; you don’t get to be governor of Iowa by announcing you want to take a hatchet to farm subsidies. This Washington Post story found some left-leaning advocacy types to say nice things about both picks, but supporters of more liberal options — such as Raul Grijalva for Interior and any number of people for Agriculture — must be disappointed.
The standard response to these concerns is that Obama will be setting policy, and he needs experienced people in his Cabinet to implement it. Obama pretty much made that case about Salazar, noting he was looking for someone to clean up the scandal-plagued Dept. of Interior. But that makes more sense when it comes to foreign and economic policy than areas which historically get overlooked by the White House. There’s also reason to be squeamish about Obama’s own policy preferences on agricultural issues, such as his history of support for corn-based ethanol, which he reinforced at today’s press conference by saying Vilsack “understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home.”
Until the president-elect and his picks actually take office and start governing, it’s probably best not to draw too many conclusions. But these are a couple spots where Obama’s liberal supporters will be looking closely for the change they believed in.