President-elect Barack Obama may have a mandate for change, but it’s becoming apparent that any transformation will have to come from within—literally. There is hardly a soul on his transition team or among his prospective administration who hasn’t been inside the Beltway all along.
At one point during the campaign, Republicans nearly succeeded in painting a picture of a post-election Washington in which radicals with bright red parachutes would drop onto the National Mall like the Hollywood Soviets in 1984’s “Red Dawn.” But so far, the invasion looks more like a sprawling downtown reunion of spry old war buddies from another time—about eight years ago, in fact.
So ascendant are the Clintonistas that it’s hard to believe Hillary lost. Far from generating a panic, however, their restoration has drawn sighs of relief from certain quarters. The new commander in chief—at least for now—seems more interested in massaging the status quo than in remaking the town in his own, still murky image.
“Clintonites are everywhere,” declared Politico on Nov. 14, as headlines raged about the not-so-secret meeting between Obama and Lady Clinton. As we go to press, word is that Hillary will be offered the coveted secretary of state post, squeezing past loyal Obama surrogate Sen. John Kerry. Tapping the former first lady would be the final kiss sealing a merger of the Clinton and Obama camps. Kerry, who was arguably hurt by the lack of a similar alliance during his own failed presidential campaign in 2004, would be thwarted again.
If Clinton is indeed brought into the Obama cabinet, she will probably know a broad swath of the new administration more intimately that the new president does. As of mid-November, more than half of the 50 people already appointed to transition or staff jobs have Clinton administration connections, including all but one of Obama’s 12-member transition advisory board. Whether this will disarm the man who campaigned against having the same two families in the White House for a quarter century or, conversely, placate potential Democratic snipers and gain the trust of a wary public remains to be seen.
“The steps he’s taking now hardly seem radical,” said Terry Madonna, public affairs professor and head of the Keystone Poll at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “It does somewhat surprise me that he’s leaning on so many Clinton ‘old hands’ as a backstop. At the same time … he wants people in the White House who know how it functions.”
Obama broadcast as much when he appointed Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief of staff just days after the election. A confidant of both the Clintons and Obama, Emanuel is a hardscrabble disciple of Washington realpolitik, a pragmatic political animal who spent his time out of elected office securing lucrative government deals for defense contractors. For Obama—still considered somewhat aloof and hardly streetwise—Emanuel is now master-at-arms at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the president’s eyes and ears in the party trenches on Capitol Hill.
Furthermore, Emanuel may help Obama skirt the mistakes of his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, whose 1992 transition was marred by infighting and indecision. Now, sixteen years later, Clinton veterans are rolling in to provide stability. Their focus seems to be on cleaving to ritual and choreographing a flawless changing of the establishment guard rather than paving the way for some dizzying ideological advance, a rainbow army comprised of Obama’s old—and new—special-interest friends.
Directing this political theater is Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta. In addition to a cadre of former Clinton officials, Podesta brings new blood from his emergent center-left think tank, the Center for American Progress, which promises to replace the Brookings Institution and the Democratic Leadership Council (ironically where Bill and Hillary used to hang their hats) as a feeder for the new administration.
As Michael Crowley of The New Republic wrote, Podesta “has succeeded in providing Washington’s fractious crunchy liberals with an ethos of corporate discipline and efficiency.” That, combined with Obama’s drive to engage the corporate elite and titans of previous Democratic administrations—particularly in the areas that concern Americans the most: the economy and war—indicates that the transition might be nearly seamless. Perhaps too seamless for those hoping Obama would rattle Washington’s musty cages.
Nov. 7 offered the first hint: standing behind the president-elect like a Praetorian Guard were a frankly non-diverse array of political, corporate, and Wall Street insiders: Robert Reich, former Clinton labor secretary; Roger Ferguson, head of TIAA-CREF and former vice chair of the Federal Reserve under Clinton; Richard Parsons, chairman of Time Warner; Robert Rubin, director and counselor of Citigroup and former Clinton Treasury secretary; Lawrence Summers, who succeeded Rubin as Treasury secretary and is now being considered for the same post in the Obama cabinet; Laura Tyson, former chairwoman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under Clinton; Paul Volcker, Fed chairman under Presidents Carter and Reagan; and Roel Campos, former Clinton SEC commissioner, among others.
Transition “team leads” include Josh Gotbaum, an operating partner in the New York hedge fund Blue Wolf Capital, who served on the Carter administration’s domestic-policy staff and did turns as a Clinton deputy Treasury secretary and as director of Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget. Joining him is Michael Warren, a longtime financial and investment consultant and former executive director of President Clinton’s National Economic Council.
Meanwhile, Senator Clinton will certainly find herself among friends if she heads to Foggy Bottom in January. Former Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher has reportedly signed on to help with the transition, though Obama’s people deny it. Other names associated with the handover include Wendy Sherman, a principle in Albright Capital Management, an international investment firm founded by another Clinton secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. Sherman also worked for Albright at State and was a special adviser to Clinton on North Korea. She was also president of the Fannie Mae Foundation from 1996 to 1997. Her partner on the transition team, Tom Donilon, was a top lobbyist for Fannie Mae from 1999 to 2005 and served as chief of staff and spokesman at the Clinton State Department.
As TAC went to press, former Clinton deputy attorney general and U.S. Attorney Eric Holder had reportedly been offered the attorney general post. In 2001, Holder allowed the controversial Mark Rich pardon to proceed on Bill Clinton’s last day in office and is still remembered for his role in returning 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba. Greg Craig, who was just named White House counsel, served as legal representation for Gonzalez’s father. He also led the Clintons’ defense team during the 1999 impeachment and was a former foreign policy adviser to both Albright and Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Another contender for the AG spot was Jamie Gorelick, who also served as deputy attorney general under Clinton and later as a member of the 9/11 Commission. She was a vice chairwoman of Fannie Mae from 1998 to 2003, just before the mortgage giant was consumed by a blistering $11 billion accounting scandal.
Perhaps there’s no area more fraught with potential disappointments than in foreign policy and defense. Liberal peaceniks and traditional conservatives held high hopes that Obama would at least restrain the current interventionist policies in the Middle East and Central Asia, promote diplomacy over force, and redirect resources—both human and monetary—back home.
But so far it looks as if Obama will convince consummate Republican bureaucrat Robert Gates to stay on as secretary of defense. The deputy director of the CIA under President Ronald Reagan and CIA director for President George H.W. Bush was brought into the current Bush administration to stanch the bleeding caused by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Though considered a realist antidote when he took over two years ago, Gates has never supported a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq. He is in sync with the growing Democratic wisdom that the U.S. should keep pounding away at the Pakistani border and plug tens of thousands more American troops into Afghanistan. Former Clinton Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and Sens. Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed—both critics of President George W. Bush—have been mentioned for the top job, but the idea that Gates would provide a steady bridge between the two administrations has been blessed by Democratic opinion-makers.
Not surprisingly, many of the names floated for top national-security positions hew to the post-Bush Doctrine view that COIN (counterinsurgency) is the best strategy for winning the war on terror. So far Obama has publicly denied neoconservative hawks a seat at the table, but he seems to be replacing them with liberal interventionists from the Clinton era—and more recently Hillary’s campaign—who advance the virtues of what Professor Andrew Bacevich calls the “Petraeus Doctrine.”
The Center for a New American Security—“Obama’s Pentagon-in-Waiting” according to Washington Independent scribe Spencer Ackerman—has been generating an avalanche of white papers and a cupboard full of experts supporting the new counterinsurgency meme. Obama has already made CNAS co-founder and former Clinton defense official Michèle Flournoy a DoD transition team leader. CNAS co-founder Kurt Campbell is also a former Clinton Pentagon and National Security Council veteran. In addition, the think tank boasts former Bush military officers like John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and as a top military assistant in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon before becoming a full-time disciple of the type of “crusader” counterinsurgency that Bacevich says promotes “protracted, ambiguous and continuous” armed conflict and glorified nation building.
Other Obama security advisers include Jim Steinberg, a former Clinton National Security Council official and adviser on Hillary’s presidential campaign, and former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, a critic of the Iraq War who nonetheless sits on the board of General Electric, which received 281 defense contracts worth $8.8 billion from 2000 to 2007.
The total effect of this Clintonesque flashback may soon begin to wear on the liberal grassroots that helped to propel Obama into the White House. For years, the new school has been openly confrontational with the old school—the neo-progressives versus Clinton-anointed centrists at the DLC. Liberal purists at The Nation are agog that Obama would even consider Larry Summers—whom they call an undistinguished opportunist—much less Robert Gates, to lead the country out of its current troubles.
Others don’t see Clintonization as an invasion at all. It’s the ideas, not necessarily the people, that matter now: “The proof will be in the pudding rather than the cooks,” New York Observer columnist Joe Conason tells TAC.
Even so, word that Hillary might be joining Obama’s cabinet has shaken many online activists whose pride in helping achieve a new Democratic era in Washington is dissolving into concern that Obama is ceding too much to the old regime. Obama is where he is today because he convinced voters that Hillary was yesterday’s news. Only time will tell if she and her old war-room buddies will get the last word.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
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