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On Sunday, Claire McCaskill appeared  on talk TV, defending Obama for naming Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates to his cabinet:

McCaskill spoke on Fox News Sunday, opposite Senator Lindsey Graham. She tried to push back on claims that the two powerful personalities of Obama and Clinton may collide.

“Obviously, Barack Obama is going to set the policy, but he will listen to different views,” McCaskill said. “He is not afraid to be challenged by people around him. He wants to be challenged,” she said.

She went on to defend his choice of keeping on Secretary of Defense Bill Gates.

“Let me say this about Secretary Gates. Even though there may have been times I disagreed with him and maybe Barack Obama disagreed with him, this is a man who clearly holds the highest level of the military accountable for mistakes, which has been very impressive to all of us,” she said. “He has solid relationships on both sides of the aisle. And what these picks say about Barack Obama is that the kind of change that he’s embracing is that you don’t just pick the people who were on your side during the campaign. You pick the best you can find. That’s an important change for Washington,” she added.

Indeed, Obama has chosen a number of conservatives like Gates, Geithner and Summers for his cabinet and few if any progressives. Hmm. If I were choosing people for those or any other cabinet positions, I’d want at least some of my advisors to be of the deepest, darkest blue hue. After all, progressives were right about the foolishness of attacking Iraq, right about the dangers of deregulation, right about the science of climate change and right about requiring our president to acquire FISA warrants.

Robert Kuttner, founding co-editor of The American Prospect, on the other hand, lays out the argument that Obama could be following in the Lincolnesque mold. A chapter in his new book, Obama’s Challenge, describes how three great presidents–Lincoln, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson in regard to civil rights–moved the country toward their goals. Lincoln, especially, believed in purple cabinets. Kuttner offers two observations about how he led:    

First, Lincoln’s great challenge as president was not just to preserve the Union, or even to free the slaves. It was to win over public sentiment among what today would be called opinion leaders and the people generally. Lincoln gradually transformed how different segments of society thought about the problem of slavery, the challenge  of rebuilding the Union, and the role of government in reconstruction and economic development. Out of impossible disunity, he built something close to national consensus.

After more than a century and a half, the popular conception of Lincoln is of the president who saved the Union and freed the slaves. Often overlooked is the fact that holding together the North was almost as difficult a task as conquering and then reintegrating the South. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln had warned in 1858, paraphrasing scripture. But in the war years, a divided house was a fitting description not just of the sundered Union, but of the fractious North as well. Loyalists to the Union included Radical Republicans who wanted both immediate liberation of the slaves and severe punishment of the South; War Democrats who favored a much more gradualist approach; Peace Democrats or “Copperheads” who were ready to abandon the slaves in exchange for a negotiated peace; and citizens of border states, who had narrowly opted to stay with the Union but wanted to keep their slaves.

Second, what enabled Lincoln to hold this coalition together and move it toward a viable national policy had everything to do with Lincoln’s character. “Malice toward none” was not just a felicitous phrase for how Lincoln hoped to treat the conquered and ravaged South. It was how he conducted his daily human relations and mastered politics.

Lincoln’s “team of rivals” included all but the most extreme representatives of these diverse factions. The cabinet was a hothouse of intrigue. Lincoln held it together with exceptional courtesy and respect, and a capacity to lead by example and by teaching. What made people his allies and admirers was not just his keen intellect and good humor. More importantly, it was his kindness, decency, idealism, and honor. He went out of his way to let people know that they were valued when he might have chosen to humiliate them. This trait reflected not just the imperatives of the time–he could not afford to sacrifice even a single potential ally–but also his abiding sense of how one treated people.

I can well imagine Obama treating people of other political persuasions with the same courtesy and respect that Lincoln did. The question is whether we can be sure they are of a different political persuation from him.

In this vein, Glenn Greenwald and David Sirota have been noticing the troubling use of the term “pragmatic” to describe Obama’s cabinet appointments. The media, to avoid admitting that some of them–Geithner and Summers, most notably–are conservative, use a term that is neither liberal nor conservative: pragmatic.

Sirota frets that if the Geithners are pragmatic, what does that make us liberals: pie-in-the-sky idiots?

Our own history during the Great Depression indicates that the pragmatic way to deal with such a massive crisis is through some good old fashioned ideological progressivism.

Obama, I think, knows this, and is doing something of a dance – one that doesn’t seek to challenge or change the Orwellian shenanigans, but to manipulate them for his own – and likely progressive – ends. It could be really brilliant (as long as what he’s doing isn’t the opposite – an attempt to sell policies crafted by conservatives with a marketing team made up of progressives – I don’t think it is, but we can’t be totally sure just yet).

One of Sirota’s commenters is far less sure than Sirota himself. The commenter thinks it likely that our president-elect picked conservatives because he prefers them:

Why would conservative free-market ideologues sign on to be used as vessels for Obama’s progressive economic dictums? This seems an unsubstantiated speculative stretch. Plus, it would make Obama an uber-wonk who maps out all levels of governmental policy by himself and delivers them to his appointed stooges who give it a “pragmatic” cover. (…..)

The fact is, Obama appointed these people because he respects them and agrees with their ideas. He spent ten years at Chicago University — the ground-zero of Milton Friedman ‘Chicago School’ hyper free-market disaster capitalism. Even if he’s on the left end of that spectrum, its pretty far-right.

McCaskill, no lefty herself, describes Obama as strong enough to know his own mind, even when he works with conservatives. Maybe, but I don’t necessarily trust her evaluation.

Still, we hope she’s right. Of course. And Obama has proposed a $700 billion works project to create jobs by improving infrastructure and building a green energy grid. That hardly sounds like Milton Friedman.

At any rate, here’s what we can know: that all three of the presidents Kuttner describes as bringing about transformational change did so under considerable pressure from progressive activists: Lincoln from abolitionists, Roosevelt from labor unions, and LBJ from civil rights groups.

We can’t get inside Obama’s mind. But we can promise ourselves that we’ll do our part to push the national conversation to the left.