When word got out Monday night that former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta would be rejoining Barack Obama’s administration, Time‘s Michael Crowley remarked:
Podesta’s return just the latest reminder that Obama’s presidency hasn’t exactly been the clean break from Clintonism he was peddling
— Michael Crowley (@CrowleyTIME) December 10, 2013
Obama’s primary vanquishing of Hillary Clinton had not, after all, wholly been due to their contrasting positions on the Iraq war. In a country still under the semi-dynastic succession of the Bushes, the prospect of alternating family control of the presidency struck many as less than a clean break with the past. Moreover, to many young voters, Hillary represented a continuation of a past Democratic politics of compromise, more skilled in the art of triangulating bare electoral victories than effecting transformative change.
Change being everything Barack Obama ran on. Young enough to represent the first political generation spared the baby boomers’ pathologies, Obama sold what, in retrospect, must seem like an impossibly improbable vision to even his most stalwart supporters. Beyond each of the particular grandiose predictions, though, the oceans receding and all that, was a yearning to move past the policies and politics that had yielded a morally tarnished executive office, a wrecked economy, and a wasted war effort; a desire to make a step change in American governance. Many on the right currently harbor similarly ambitious hopes, and see their own rising tide of a new generation in a libertarian upswell.
They, and any other students of American politics who hope to effect change, not just promise it, should take heed of a few key passages of Tevi Troy’s informative National Affairs article, “Measuring the Drapes,” which tells the story of the Romney transition team. As Troy recounts, “One of the most important pre-election tasks was to identify the people who could staff the highest ranks of a Romney administration, particularly those whose jobs would require Senate confirmation.” After all, the President may occupy the Oval Office, but he has very little operational control of the executive branch. He can order a missile strike or a mayonnaise sandwich on his own accord. Everything else goes down the chain of command. The recent Healthcare.gov rollout problems are a strong reminder of this, as even the President’s top priority, supervised with close attention and constant reminders that it is the sine qua non of his presidency, can go awry without the slightest warning to the President himself.
Troy goes on to detail just how many candidates a transition process has to compile:
For each R2P [Romney Readiness Project] policy group, this meant identifying five candidates who might be able to fill each of the top ten presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed slots for each cabinet department under its jurisdiction. The math was daunting: Each team leader had to come up with 50 prospects, which meant that each of the three policy groups—domestic, economic, and national security—had to provide approximately 400 names that could potentially take top-level positions at the eight or so agencies under its purview.
Altogether, a list of 1,200 potential top-level Executive Branch officials has to be compiled before the candidate even wins his (or her) election. Where does one find such a slate of candidates, qualified and experienced enough to be considered for appointment? Mostly, from the last president of the same party, and that is the single biggest challenge change candidates will face. American politics may usually be played between the 40-yard lines, as Charles Krauthammer is fond of saying, but half the battle is filling out the roster.
Now why, a reformer may ask, must one pick from a prior president’s staff? After all, as candidate Obama was fond of saying, doesn’t change come to Washington, not from Washington? Indeed, a rightward reformer may claim their philosophy of governance to be so radically different from George W. Bush’s that fresh faces untainted by civil service should be brought in. Troy has sobering news for such thinking:
the knowledge possessed by people who had previously served in government was invaluable, particularly for jobs below the very highest circle of decision-makers. Republicans often extol the virtues of business experience, but time and again, we have seen those who understand government and its processes run circles around officials unschooled in the methods of the bureaucracy.
As Obama, a candidate who clearly understood his electoral mandate to stay out of Middle East military conflict whenever possible, has had to depend on a Clintonian staff inheritance of liberal interventionists in the Susan Rice and Samantha Power mold, so even a Paul would have to draw on Bush-era appointees.
Promising change is the easiest part of reform. Marshaling the personnel both willing and able to effect those changes is what distinguishes a presidency from a campaign.