For a man who ran on change and the future, Barack Obama looks more like a president with a yearning for yesterdays. His early appointments lean heavily on Clintonistas, returning to the inside-the-Beltway clique of Democrats rather than on the kind of outsiders he promised would change the business model for the federal government:
Here’s how you can tell the campaign is over and the transition has begun: Barack Obama’s aides now wear suits and ties, their desks are in the Federal Building on 6th Street in Washington — and Clintonites are everywhere.
Obama’s victory in the general election produced what his primary campaign couldn’t: A swift merger of the Clinton Wing of the Democratic Party with the Illinois Senator’s self-styled insurgency. The merger began, during the campaign, in the policy apparatus — which is now rapidly becoming the governing apparatus.
The absorption of the Clinton government in waiting represents Obama’s choice not to repeat what he and his advisors see as an early mistake made by the last two presidents: Attempting to wield power in Washington through an insular campaign apparatus new to town.
Obama’s first major appointments have been Democrats who worked for President Clinton and did not endorse him in the primary: Transition chief John Podesta and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who will be White House chief of staff, stayed neutral, and Ron Klain, who will be Joe Biden’s chief of staff, backed Biden. Obama, advisers told Politico, may even be weighing offering Hillary Rodham Clinton herself the Cabinet plum of Secretary of State.
The notion that the previous two presidents committed some sort of error by bringing in fresh people seems odd in a few different ways. First, both presidents won second terms rather handily. Second, at least in the case of George Bush, it’s not entirely true. When he came into office, the holdovers from his father’s administration got plenty of criticism, especially Dick Cheney, who conspiratorial thinkers claimed as the real power in the Bush White House.
Ben Smith and Carrie Budoff Brown note that Clinton’s housecleaning in the Democratic Party was a success, not a failure, giving even less credibility to Obama’s sudden love of experience. (One wonders whether he would meet his own standards at this point.) Clinton got elected while the Democrats waged a war over ideology and pragmatism, and the Carter wing was on the losing side. Obama may want to avoid that same battle, but his supporters on the Left will certainly notice that a lot of DLC-type figures look to play more prominent roles than the MoveOn crowd in the incoming administration — and they’re not going to like it.
Eventually, Obama may face the same kind of criticism Bush initially received: that his administration relies too heavily on the past than on the future. With W, it looked like Poppy was secretly pulling the strings. In this case, Obama may give the impression that the Clintons are calling the shots, or at least enough of them to matter.