Unlike many progressives, I am not at all worried about Obama's seemingly centrist cabinet picks. Obama will be in charge, and these center folks work for him, and his agenda is as progressive as can be expected considering he also has to save the world!
People Who Need People
No question about it: asking Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State is a bold and brave move on the part of President-elect Obama. A risky move, too—but if it weren’t risky it wouldn’t be bold and brave, now, would it?
But that doesn’t change the fact that the current fad for stories (and/or lamentations) to the effect that “Obama is surrounding himself with Clinton people” (with the implication that “this isn’t the change we voted for”) constitutes an unusually bogus “narrative.”
What is a “Clinton person”? Apparently, it’s any Democrat under about fifty or fifty-five years of age who has had work experience in the executive branch of the federal government.
The theory seems to be that a “Clinton person” would be inclined, at best, to reproduce the policies and actions of the Clinton Administration, including the accompanying mistakes, or, at worst, to serve the interests of “the Clintons” should they prove divergent from those of the Obama Administration and the nation.
This is the sort of reasoning that led to needless unhappiness the last two times Democrats were in power. Jimmy Carter’s circle regarded Johnson, who mired the nation in Vietnam and then handed the White House to Nixon, as a failure. They weren’t about to have any “Johnson people” in their White House. Clinton’s circle regarded Carter, who allowed himself to be paralyzed by a few hundred Iranian “students” and then handed the White House to Reagan, as a failure. They weren’t about to have any “Carter people” in their White House.
It didn’t seem to occur to either crowd, Carter’s or Clinton’s, that old hands, far from being eager to repeat the errors of the Administrations of which they had been a part, would be especially keen to avoid them. Also, they would know in detail what those errors were.
The Carter people made several stupid mistakes right at the beginning of their tenure. One was to cut the White House staff by one-third. This resulted in a couple of days of fairly good press. A fresh breeze was blowing, Nixon’s imperial presidency was being cut down to size, “cabinet government” would restore the rightful order of things—that sort of thing. Another mistake, related to the first, was to cut the White House budget for “frills” such as newspaper subscriptions and television sets. A third mistake was to sell off the Sequoia, the Presidential yacht—another gesture of populist humility, yielding in another day or two of positive press.
If Carter had put a “Johnson person” in a top White House job—if, for example, Joseph Califano had been named White House Chief of Staff instead of Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare—then that person would have been able to tell the newbies (a) that you need a big White House staff to have any hope of controlling the departments and agencies, (b) that getting rid of newspapers and TV sets is like wearing earplugs and dark glasses to work, and (c) that a Presidential yacht is one of the most cost-effective items in the federal budget, because it can be used to flatter and persuade impressionable, luxury-loving, bourbon-drinking Congressmen to give their support to worthy measures, support that might otherwise have to be purchased with bridges to nowhere and the like.
A yacht is a lot harder, politically, to acquire than to dispose of, even (or especially) if you’re a Republican, so when Clinton came to town he didn’t have the option of getting rid of one. However, not having any “Carter people” around to warn him off, he repeated Carter’s mistake of splashily cutting the White House staff, this time by one quarter. Naturally, the positions eliminated were not those of big shots—special assistants to the President and whatnot—but of grunt workers. Mid-level big shots ended up doing their own Xeroxing, typing, filing, and so on. Results: unreturned phone calls, exhaustion, impaired judgment. Eventually, interns were recruited to take over these clerical tasks. We all know how well that turned out.
The Clinton Administration was not an obvious failure; on the contrary, it was rather successful, overall. Nevertheless, it had its problems, and Senator Obama ran against its first couple. So President-elect Obama deserves credit for choosing Rahm Emanuel—who not only served in the White House under Clinton but was a senior staffer whose West Wing office was a ten-second walk from the Oval—to be his White House chief of staff.