On The O-Team

Tell me who you walk with,” goes the old adage, “and I’ll tell you who you are.” So let’s look at who is walking with Obama.

At first glance, you might get worried because, with some exceptions, these are not the policy people you’d expect to see.

Take Jason Furman: Because of his pro-corporate connections and comments, Furman is the guy who most alarms labor, fair trade activists, and other progressives (like me). Obama’s top economic aide, this thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-educated academic has found nice things to say about the Wal-Mart business model, has supported the corporate trade agenda, and most recently has headed a policy research outfit founded by Robert Rubin, who throttled the populism out of Bill Clinton.

Yet, it turns out that Furman is not quite the corporate snake that some would make him out to be. His background also includes an important stint with the highly progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where he churned out hard-hitting policy papers on the rising danger of income inequality, the need to raise the minimum wage, the disaster of Bush’s tax cuts, and the necessity of stopping the privatization of Social Security. He’s no populist, but neither is he a sneaky Rubinaut. Furman’s selection has been warmly endorsed by liberal economist and Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, labor economist Jared Bernstein, and populist economist James Galbraith—all three of whom are also on the Obama team.

Dan Carol is a recent addition and a big plus. This fifty-year-old Oregonian is a longtime progressive strategist, a pioneer in Internet organizing, a proponent of grassroots-based policy development, a believer in the politics of big ideas, and an unabashed advocate of making political action fun. (Disclosure: Carol is a friend of mine.) He has now been brought onto the O-team as “director of content and issues.” That’s a fuzzy title, but I do know that he’ll be pushing one of Obama’s signature ideas: a “Green Deal” that would enlist the American people themselves to build a green infrastructure all across America. Such solid, progressive thinkers and activists as Van Jones of California and Joel Rogers of Wisconsin are also enlisted in this exciting aspect of Obama’s campaign.

And let’s not forget Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford law professor who is Obama’s Internet adviser. Until now, an “Internet adviser” hasn’t exactly played a central role on a White House staff, but Obama intends to use the power of cyberspace to advance some of his biggest goals. By enlisting Lessig, a visionary advocate for free public access to the Internet and a renowned defender of the people’s online rights against the grasp of corporate control, Obama has demonstrated his seriousness about advancing the democratic potential of this technology.

There are, of course, many more players who would mold Obama’s White House agenda, including the usual forces of caution, inertia, and recalcitrance dragging him down, ranging from don’t-rock-the-boat Democratic elders to Washington’s army of corporate lobbyists.

The glue for this team is not its uniform progressive credentials, but Obama himself. I know this is risky. I might have to eat these words later, but I think he has a deep core of progressive values, honed by his life experience as a global child and a community organizer.

Ultimately, however, the substance of an Obama presidency—and its degree of progressivity—will be determined by the insistent demands and steady involvement of the energized grassroots constituency that has propelled him this far.

Jim Hightower produces The Hightower Lowdown political newsletter and is the author, with Susan DeMarco, of the new book “Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.”