Change or Institutional Reshuffling?

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I think that it is worthwhile to discuss whether Obama’s transition team, in what appears to be picking mainly former Clinton 42 officials for future Obama posts, is really offering change or just recycling and reshuffling Washington insiders. As my brother puts it, “for those of you that had all sorts of hope for Obama his cabinet selections should be removing any lingering ‘change you can believe in.'”

The most obvious Clinton backsliding would be the nomination of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. There were concerns that Bill’s foundation and library activities would pose a conflict of interest. Of course, there is nothing per se wrong with a conflict of interest between a sitting president and a former one on issues of foreign affairs — Jimmy Carter and even Bill Clinton’s activities have arguably already conflicted with Bush’s policies. But with Hillary as Secretary of State, the conflict would be quite different. When Bill negotiates a deal with a foreign state or national, a potential conflict may arise as to whether the negotiating party interprets Bill to be a surrogate for his wife (with whom he files joint tax returns), the Secretary of State? In other words, a do a favor for Bill and the secretary of state will do a favor for you.

Originally, I did not favor Hillary for the position because I thought she was better suited for other areas of government service, but I felt that the best solution was for her to finally divorce Bill. Since then, I have read some other convincing arguments as to why she is not best fit for this particular position: read Misters Ignatius, Broder, and Friedman. Personally, I think that presidents need to be able to fire their cabinet officials at will, and frankly, firing Hillary may be tough.

Nevertheless, it looks like Hillary is a done deal, and her nomination will be the poster girl for Obama’s team of rivals strategy. But once again, is that change? Not according to my brother,

Taking a bunch of Clintons and/or Clinton Democrats is not change. Sprinkle it with long-term politicians and/or strategists and that ain’t change either. Shuffling a bunch of institutional players around is not a change I can believe in.

While I would tend to agree that so far we are only seeing the shuffling of “institutional players”, I am not sure that is a bad thing or is the whole picture. Obama is widely receiving praise for avoiding the great errors of Bill Clinton’s transition and first 100 days. Clinton named his cabinet before selecting his chief of staff and then struggled to put together an effective operating team on day one. In this sense, Obama has put together an experienced senior transition team. But that doesn’t mean that former senior Clintonites like John Podesta who are now working on the transition will become top officials in the new administration.

Sure, Rahm Emanuel (Chief of Staff) and Eric Holder (for attorney general) formerly served in government during the Clinton years, and Tom Daschle (for health secretary) is a Washington Insider (how many times did I see him at Cafe Deluxe?). Meanwhile, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (for homeland security) may not be in Washington, but she is definitely part of the Democrat’s institution. But an administration, like a new company, needs these types of characters. Obama is also trying to avoid the Jimmy Carter fatal error of trying to fight against Washington from the ouside in, as opposed to changing from within.

I would be more concerned if the cabinet were made up of the exact same officials as the Clinton one. There is nothing wrong with the natural and logical promotion to the top of middle or upper ranked agency officials from the 90s, say as is the case of Eric Holder. Otherwise, where do you pick and choose from? Wall Street? Not Main Street again? Sean Penn? Will.i.am? Believe it or not, there aren’t that many qualified professionals willing to move to Washington to play the political game. What is most important is who gets those number two and number three positions. Those are going to be the fresh faces of change, and the future cabinet members in 10-15 years.

The way George Stephanopoulos explained it was that Obama was concentrating not so much on looking like change but on who was most capable of implementing the necessary changes. Interestingly enough, Obama is caught in a funny position. In 1992, Bill Clinton was very concerned with making his cabinet look like the American public by appointing a representative cross section of minorities and women to high positions. Obama, as a minority himself, already looks like change and therefore would theoretically be free from affirmative action in his own administration and could focus simply on who he personally feels most comfortable with for each position. If life were only that easy. Obama will have to walk a fine line between avoiding the racists who will say he’s filling the government with minorities and without selling out to the Man.

Many of those, especially Republicans, who argued during the election that the biggest risk of an Obama presidency was the candidate’s inexperience, have joined this “don’t look like change to me” bandwagon. On the other hand, conservative commentary David Brooks is doing the exact opposite. He is genuinely impressed with the Obama transition:

Most of all, they are picking Washington insiders. Or to be more precise, they are picking the best of the Washington insiders.

Obama seems to have dispensed with the romantic and failed notion that you need inexperienced “fresh faces” to change things. After all, it was L.B.J. who passed the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, because he is so young, Obama is not bringing along an insular coterie of lifelong aides who depend upon him for their well-being.

As a result, the team he has announced so far is more impressive than any other in recent memory. One may not agree with them on everything or even most things, but a few things are indisputably true . . .

Finally, there are many people on this team with practical creativity. Any think tanker can come up with broad doctrines, but it is rare to find people who can give the president a list of concrete steps he can do day by day to advance American interests. Dennis Ross, who advised Obama during the campaign, is the best I’ve ever seen at this, but Rahm Emanuel also has this capacity, as does Craig and legislative liaison Phil Schiliro.

Believe me, I’m trying not to join in the vast, heaving O-phoria now sweeping the coastal haut-bourgeoisie. But the personnel decisions have been superb. The events of the past two weeks should be reassuring to anybody who feared that Obama would veer to the left or would suffer self-inflicted wounds because of his inexperience. He’s off to a start that nearly justifies the hype.

I tend to side with Brooks and the argument that change needs to be tempered by the right experienced team leaders with young and fresh talent implementing the new policies. Also recognize that the Obama transition team has set up the strictest ethics rules and vetting process for cabinet members in presidential history, and it is rumored that Obama intends to form a governing coaliton made up of Democrats and Republicans. A large part of the success will have to do more with these modes of governing than with the names and faces. Remember that one of the turning points in the election was when the financial crisis hit. McCain was running around like an erratic fool. Obama was being advised by Warrent Buffet and Paul Vaulker. That balance between change and security is what gave Obama an edge in voter confidence.

Then again, if you’re like my brother and you reject the very notion that a real and concrete difference exists between Republicans and Democrats or even the government and corporate America, then meaningful change simply is not possible through perpetuating those experienced in government.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Change or Institutional Reshuffling?

  1. Nancy 69

    I am simply disgusted that Obama (whom I supported both financially, my word to anyone who would listen, and most importantly my vote, would put Hillary Clinton in the top position in his cabinet. If I had thought Hillary should be in such a high position, I would have supported her in the beginning. Anyone who thinks that Bill Clinton is going to leave the scene is simply fooling themselves. What a shame that Obama is starting off with big mistakes!

  2. eric

    Nancy, think about it. Now whatever Bill tries to do will be very public, so his shady dealings will become more obvious. And if he tries to overshadow his wife, he’ll look like the machista that he is.

    Hillary as Sec of State immediately removes her from the Senate and electoral politics. It throws a dog a bone, but he makes her subservient to Obama. He is number one. She is like number 3. Her job isn’t to think but to follow Obama’s lead — wasn’t that Colin Powell’s ruin under Bush at State?

    My major concern will be in is ability to fire her, and of course I think that Thomas Friedman’s arguments are also strong.

  3. ReWrite

    Nancy, my guess is that Hillary and Obama made a deal at some point.

    Eric, I disagree that only experienced politicians and/or insiders can get more done than an outsider or non-politician. Real ‘change,’ which is Obama’s mantra, rarely comes from within an institution. And I think experience (as I believe you wrong about for months) is more overrated in politics than in most other occupations.
    There are certainly a lot of non-career politicians out there that even more practical experience, expertise and thus are more qualified for the positions than insiders that have no clue what is actually going on in the real world.

    I do not understand how you cannot tolerate blood dynasties (the Bushes and Clintons), but you can tolerate de facto insider dynasties. What is the practical difference between the two?

    Why would we be so naive to believe that people that achieved little positive change in the past would now wake up and suddenly effectuate change? I agree they are experienced, but at what… nothing more than promoting the interests of multi-national corporations and special interests, usually at the taxpayers’ expense. Anyway. We thought NAFTA and end of Welfare reform were bad, let’s see what Obama cooks up.

  4. eric

    ReWrite,

    I am not saying that only experienced insiders can get the job done. But I do think, especially if there was one lesson from the Carter administration, that you cannot change from the outside.

    I do hope that Obama will have some non-career guys in there along with some of the old schoolers that he probably owes an appointment, ie, people like Richardson, Kerry, and Napolitano who endorsed him at important moments in the campaign. It’s important that the people that implement the policies under these appointees are varied and able.

    By the way, who would be a willing and able outsider? Treasury Secretary Paulson from Wall Street? Once again, a mix is best.

    While listening now to David Brooks on the NewsHour, I think he continues to bring up some positive points about Obama’s picks and how they very much differ from how Clinton or W. built their respective cabinets in the past. First, Obama has chosen very smart and able people. He also does not arrive to DC with an entourage, say as Clinton did from Arkansas or Bush from Texas; but is picking people he thinks will help him govern, rather than buddies who will make him feel at home. Also, it appears that the transition is not being influenced by special interests or lobbies.

    As I have mentioned, I am not crazy about the Hillary pick, but having people who served in the Clinton agencies doesn’t necessarily equate to a Clinton redo. Most have been in and out of government since the 90s. I’d rather wait and see what these guys do before I trash them.

    Finally, I don’t know whether NAFTA and Welfare Reform were necessarily bad. That’s another conversation. But the question of whether these guys effectuated change in the past is moot. None of them were in the position to effectuate change. With the exception of the Congressmen, the former Clinton functionaries weren’t agency leaders, but were further down the line. Now it’s their turn. But remember, Obama will be in charge and should be solely to blame for the performance of his White House and the executive agencies.

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