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November 24, 2008

Obama’s Team: How Clintonian is Too Clintonian?


Even before word got out that Hillary Clinton was likely President-elect Barack Obama's choice for Secretary of State, whispers were circulating in political circles: What's with all the Clintonites?


Obama, a few days after his victory, named former Bill Clinton White House aide Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, and named an ex-Clinton chief of staff, John Podesta, as one of the chiefs of his transition team.


Attorney General pick Eric Holder worked in Justice in the Clinton years, while aides Ron Klain and Gregory Craig, among others, spent time in Bill's White House too. Former Clinton cabinet secretary Bill Richardson is reportedly going to be Commerce Secretary, and in the coup de grace, Hillary Clinton herself looks likely to take the Secretary of State post.


The whispers emanated from various segments of the left and right – whether from Obama-loving liberals worried that their man was caving to the centrist Clintonism of the past, or Obama-hating conservatives gloating that the new president's own loyalists weren't strong enough. Either way, the argument goes, "Where's the change?"


You can say what you want about the idea of Hillary as Secretary of State. I have mixed feelings. But to consider the Obama presidency some sort of restoration of the Clinton presidency is kind of absurd.


First of all, Obama's inner circle remains what it was during the campaign. Neither Obama nor Joe Biden is a Clinton Administration veteran, and neither are top advisors David Axelrod or Valerie Jarrett. Emanuel, while a Clinton vet, is also a longtime Obama friend, from Chicago, who pointedly endorsed neither candidate in the Democratic primaries.


Secondly, this isn't especially different from standard new-president procedure. Just about every new president hires people who have worked in government before, but not since their party was last in power. Obama was accused throughout the campaign of lacking experience – and now he's being mocked for bringing in people who are . . . experienced?


Clinton was president for eight years. He's also the only Democratic president in the past 30 years. Of the party's "bench" of potential staffers and Cabinet secretaries, a certain percentage have worked in government before – and unless they're old enough to be Carter veterans, a good percentage of them probably worked in the last Democratic administration.


I don't remember Obama ever saying on the campaign trail that he wouldn't hire anyone who was a government veteran. Promises of "change" were always about policy, attitude, temperament and competence. They were never about personnel.


Plus, many of the appointees have not exactly been idle since Clinton left office. They have accomplished things in their own right. Emanuel was a leader in Congress who masterminded the party's 2006 House takeover. Podesta founded a successful think tank, the Center for American Progress, essentially from scratch. Craig broke with the Clintons to endorse Obama early in the primaries, while Richardson – the governor of New Mexico – did later on, and Ron Klain was always more associated with Al Gore anyway.


And while they could theoretically emerge as part of a Hillary State Department, a whole lot of names associated with the Clintons – the Carvilles and Begalas, the Terry McAuliffes, the Lanny Davises, the Sidney Blumenthals – have not emerged on the Obama roster, and probably won't.


George W. Bush was mocked, early in his presidency, for bringing in a wide variety of staffers and top officials who had earlier served under his father. But unlike most mockery directed at Bush, this always struck me as thin. Every president brings in a whole lot of people from the previous administration of their party. And a large percentage of Cabinet posts generally go to whoever was next in line from the last administration.


When Obama named Emanuel and Axelrod to his team in the early days, he was accused of “bringing Chicago to Washington.” But when more names were announced, he was suddenly over-relying on ex-Clintonites. Well, which one is it?


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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