If They Can
Change Is Landing in Old Hands
By JOHN HARWOOD
Published: November 22, 2008
AS he sought the presidency for the last two years, Barack Obama liked to say that “change doesn’t come from Washington — change comes to Washington.”
Nearly three weeks after his election, he is testing voters’ understanding of that assertion as he assembles a government whose early selections lean heavily on veterans of the political era he ran to supplant. He showed that in breathtaking fashion by turning to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his bitter primary rival and the wife of the last Democratic president, for the post of secretary of state.
Mr. Obama will bring pieces of Chicago to the White House in the form of longtime advisers like Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod. But even after vowing to turn the page on the polarized politics of the baby boom generation, he’s made clear that service in the Beltway wars of the last 20 years is not only acceptable, but in some cases necessary for his purposes.
At the same time, it raises a question: Could the 47-year-old president-elect ultimately find himself pulled toward the Washington folkways he has vowed to surmount?
In Mrs. Clinton’s case, the president-elect was bringing a formidable former rival into his camp, evidently calculating that her political constituency, brains and experience in the White House and Senate outweighed the fact that she had been on what he considered the wrong side in voting to authorize the Iraq war. In office, he would rely on her toughness to execute his diplomatic initiatives — some of which, she argued during the Democratic primaries, would be naïve and ill advised.
The same preference for battle-tested stature was evident in his selection of Tom Daschle to lead the charge for health care reform as health and human services secretary. As the second-ranking Senate Democrat, Mr. Daschle had an up-close look at how President Bill Clinton’s drive for universal coverage fell apart in the early 1990s.
Mr. Obama’s top candidate for attorney general, Eric Holder, lived through the turbulence at the Clinton Justice Department; his leading prospect for budget director, Peter Orszag, now in the Congressional Budget Office, has seen the partisan budget skirmishes of the Clinton and Bush years. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, worked in the Clinton White House to achieve passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement that Mr. Obama, as a candidate, criticized. His choice for Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is seen as a new-generation choice over Larry Summers, Treasury secretary under Mr. Clinton; still, Mr. Geithner worked at Treasury under three presidents, including Mr. Clinton.
But advisers to Mr. Obama say he is not undercutting his vision of change. Instead, they say, he has concluded that those experiences can be marshaled to improve his odds of achieving his own goals.
“He’s not looking for people to give him a vision,” said Mr. Axelrod, who will be a senior White House adviser. “He’s going to put together an administration of people who can effectuate his vision.”
That breezy formulation disregards the received wisdom of Pennsylvania Avenue. For years, Washington insiders have used the phrase “personnel is policy” for the assumption that the prior loyalties and political tastes of a president’s cabinet and White House staff heavily influence what those appointees are eager, or able, to get done.
Because he personally embodies historic change, Mr. Obama has considerable latitude to eschew symbolic gestures in choosing subordinates. But he also has little choice but to lean on the Clinton presidency’s infrastructure.
In winning 7 of 10 presidential elections from 1968 to 2004, Republicans accumulated and continually replenished a cadre of experienced executive branch officials. Even reform-minded Democrats acknowledge the need for such expertise in a government that has grown increasingly complex, and especially in managing America’s role in the global economy of the 21st century. In the last generation, the only Democratic administration aside from Mr. Clinton’s was that of Jimmy Carter, whom some still fault for relying on an inexperienced inner circle from Georgia.
“You have to be either very young or naïve to believe change begins with erasing the slate,” said William Galston, a top Clinton domestic policy aide who remains outside Mr. Obama’s circle. “The world doesn’t work that way. The way to ensure that nothing changes is to place people in positions of authority who are incapable of effecting change — whatever their good intentions may be.”
Mr. Obama, he added, is “placing an extremely high premium on actually getting the job done.”
That doesn’t answer the question of what the job actually is. Using the “personnel is policy” formulation, some Republicans hope that the combination of Clinton veterans and Mr. Obama’s pledge of bipartisan comity foreshadows centrist compromise on national problems that have long appeared intractable.
“The next couple of years are going to go to the pragmatists,” said Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, a former Republican Party chairman. “The problems we are facing are not amenable to ideological solutions.”
In his health care proposal, to take one notable example, Mr. Obama has opened the door to a cross-party conversation by omitting a government mandate for universal coverage. That earned him attacks from Mrs. Clinton and John Edwards during the Democratic primaries, but avoids one ideological poison pill that Republicans would otherwise target.
Yet some Obama advisers and allies caution against projecting outcomes from the president-elect’s style or appointments — which include transition team members with ties to the lobbying industry that Mr. Obama condemned on the campaign trail. Just as a new manager can improve the won-loss record of a baseball team with familiar players, an Obama spokesman, Robert Gibbs, argued, a new chief executive can produce different results on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In that view, Mr. Obama could adopt Clintonites without Clintonism — at least the incremental Clintonism that marked the former president’s second term.
“Barack Obama never offered himself as an ideologue — he’s a pragmatist and a problem solver,” Mr. Axelrod explained. But he added: “We are not living in a time that allows for incrementalism. His goal is to form bipartisan consensus. I don’t think that goal is more important than achieving a result.”
That mindset helps explain the distinction between Mr. Obama’s post-election phase, so far at least, and Mr. Clinton’s after he defeated the first President Bush in 1992.
In response to federal deficits, President-elect Clinton sidetracked plans for a middle-class tax cut and disappointed some liberal supporters. As the journalist John Harris recounts in “The Survivor,” the “bells of hope” that Mr. Clinton’s team called for across the land on the eve of his inauguration drew a sour response from the columnist Mary McGrory: “The bell-ringing seemed a little pretentious to hail great change — when the evidence mounts that there will be precious little.”
Notwithstanding the economic crisis and the unplanned $700 billion federal bailout this fall, Mr. Obama has given no indication yet that he’s scaling back his plans for expanding health coverage, cutting taxes for the middle class and raising them for investors, or investing in alternative energy and infrastructure.
“We are at a moment that is not familiar to Washington, of learning the difference between a transactional president and a transformational one,” said Andy Stern, a labor leader who in recent years helped fracture the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to create a breakaway “Change to Win” union federation. “What Barack Obama has created by this campaign was not only the idea that we can do big things — but we have to do big things.”
To that end, Mr. Obama aims to mobilize his army of donors and volunteers to sustain political pressure and prevent either the administration or the Democratic Congress from faltering. Aides acknowledge the potential for disappointment if backers conclude that Washington’s version of change becomes “Not so fast” or “No, we can’t.”
“There’s certainly going to be consternation about a lot of decisions that he makes, and understandably so,” said Mr. Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, who’s expected to play a role in mobilizing the Obama forces. “They’re not just going to roll over and do whatever Barack Obama tells them.”
At the same time, allies say, Mr. Obama and his new team don’t plan to roll over for conventional notions of what’s possible in Washington — whatever they’ve done in the past.
“It’s not just the left that demands real change — it’s the average middle-class American,” concluded Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who has led the effort to swell the ranks of Senate Democrats in the last two elections. “Rahm Emanuel knows how much change is needed.”