Magazine article The American Conservative

Clinton Cabinet: The Politics of Change Look Surprisingly Familiar

Magazine article The American Conservative

Clinton Cabinet: The Politics of Change Look Surprisingly Familiar

Article excerpt

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. …

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