Back to the future? Oh, say it ain’t so, Barack Obama. As the president-elect struggles to fill out his staff, there is concern among analysts and scholars of the presidency that the new president may be relying too much on the men and women who served Bill Clinton.
The problem is that they are perceived as yesterday’s people and, worse, that Obama was elected on a clarion call of change. The stalwarts of the Democratic administration of the ’90s have about them the ghostly tinge of another time. In a parliamentary system of government, you know the likely players after an election. There is in place a shadow cabinet, ready to seize the reins if the electorate favors a change. In a presidential system you hope for new faces.
We look not only for fresh ideas in a new administration, but also for fresh faces to carry the policies forward. The need for the new has been elevated by the George W. Bush administration, staffed as it has been by his father’s placemen, especially in the first term. Alas, it was old wine in new bottles. Sometimes the wine was bitter: men who came back to Washington to finish that which had been unfinished. While the new president might not have had an agenda, the staff he appointed did–and they sold it to the president, particularly after the emboldening that 9/11 conveyed.
That is one lesson for the Obama crowd. Another is do not tear up everything that the previous administration has done, even if you don’t like it. That just sets up a policy seesaw of the kind that debilitates. The new Bush administration reversed treaties, including the Kyoto agreement, and encouraged a kind of belligerence. It gave the back of its hand to all sorts of people and undermined, rather than reformed, the United Nations.
The early signs are that Obama is relying heavily on Clinton worthies. First there is Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who is known for his arrogance, effectiveness and profanity. Obama has chosen Emanuel to fill the position of chief of staff. He is an odd choice. It is a position best occupied by self-effacing professionals who can control an egotistical staff. It is a job best performed by those who can mollify without conceding. Ronald Reagan, after difficulties, found the right person in Howard Baker. George H.W. Bush had difficulties with John Sununu, fewer with Sam Skinner and found the perfect person in that Man for All Reasons, James Baker. Clinton had three chiefs of staff, but Leon Panetta stood out. Andy Card and Josh Bolten have both served George W. Bush well–not an easy assignment, given the intrusive influence of Vice President Cheney and the pre-emptive role of strategist Karl Rove.
Washington’s foreign policy establishment is particularly concerned about the names circulating for national security adviser and secretary of state. For national security adviser, these include Susan Rice, who was Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She is liked and respected, but her gravitas is questioned, as is her role in the Rwanda civil war. And for secretary of state, these include Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s man in the Bosnian crisis and architect of the Dayton peace accords. If Emanuel has an ego, the brilliant Holbrooke is his equal. Then there is the perennial office-seeker Bill Richardson, Clinton’s secretary of energy and United Nations ambassador. A man of derring-do, he longs to move back to Washington and leave his gubernatorial duties in New Mexico. He likes worlds to conquer and supported Obama after his own presidential bid collapsed.
Their hopes may be dashed by the ambitions of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is pressuring Obama for the top State Department job and by the friends of Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who would like to see the minority leader on the Foreign Relations Committee go out in a blaze of bipartisan glory. The joke in the Capitol is that if you walk into any urinal and say, “Mr. Secretary,” 10 men will reply, “Yes?”
And so it goes. What is lacking so far are the new faces of “change.” Things look a little less Clintonesque over at the Justice Department, where a variety of names, some with Clinton ties and some without, are circulating. The wisdom about the other two critical appointments is less informed. This gives the Treasury either to former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker or to the quintessential Clinton man, Robert Rubin. Defense aficionados hope Obama will keep Robert Gates as long as he wants to serve, and then will slip in the much-loved but wayward Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.