Obama, Candidate of Change, Looks to Old Hands From Clinton Era

By Catherine Dodge and Kristin Jensen

Nov. 10 (Bloomberg) — Barack Obama, elected president as an agent of change, is building his new team with old hands from the Clinton administration.

His first appointment, chief of staff, went to Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois representative and veteran of the last Democratic White House. Leading Obama’s transition team is John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton‘s chief of staff.

Obama’s most dramatic step would be to name New York Senator Hillary Clinton, his defeated rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, as secretary of state. Two Obama advisers confirm the idea has been discussed, though they say they don’t know how seriously the president-elect is considering it or whether Clinton would accept it.

Faced from day one with an economic crisis and two wars, Obama’s campaign theme of changing the way Washington works is about to be overtaken by getting to work in Washington. For that, experience helps.

“Once you become president-elect, the rubber hits the road, and you’re going to want to put people in positions of power who have a proven track record,” says Chris Lehane, who was a special assistant counsel to Clinton.

The presence of Clinton-era advisers has drawn fire on blogs: from liberals who viewed the Clinton administration as too centrist and conservatives for whom the former president remains a favorite target.

The other risk for Obama is that his administration “can quickly look like the Clinton administration, now defined, by his campaign, as the status quo,” says Julian Zelizer, a history and public-affairs professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.

New and Old

From his transition team to his economic advisers, Obama, 47, has surrounded himself with both loyalists new to government and a group of familiar Democratic Party figures who formed something of an administration in exile during Republican President George W. Bush’s administration. Some of those who have advised Obama reach back to Jimmy Carter’s administration, such as Paul Volcker, 81, the former Federal Reserve chairman.

The pattern is familiar, even for presidents who ran for office as outsiders.

Bush, who came to office with little Washington experience, relied on many advisers from past Republican administrations, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His first chief of staff, Andrew Card, was transportation secretary in the administration of his father, former President George H.W. Bush.

Campaign slogans aside, when it comes to the reality of governing and finding the best people to carry out a vision, Obama needs people with Washington experience if he wants to succeed, say political analysts and historians.

Experienced Hands

“Change from President Bush was an important theme in the election,” says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Americans will want to see some new faces in the Cabinet, but they also know that you need experienced hands to run the ship in Washington.”

Republicans, looking ahead to potential battles after Obama takes office on Jan. 20, were quick to highlight his appointment of Emanuel, who is known for his sharp partisanship in the Clinton administration and as the No. 4 ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.

House Republican leader John Boehner called Emanuel, 48, “an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington.”

But Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton, says voters largely aren’t interested in such inside-the-Beltway maneuvering.

“Obama may get insider criticism for using retreads,” but he “is drawing on people who served well in the Clinton presidency.”

Reaching Out

Obama spent time during the campaign reaching out to Clinton’s economic advisers, including former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. Summers, 53, is often mentioned as a possibility to resume his post at the Treasury Department under Obama. Rubin, 70, has told Obama he isn’t interested in returning to government service but would consider taking on special projects.

“The real issues on this score will crop up after Jan. 20,” says Rogan Kersh, a public-service professor at New York University. “Will there be a Clinton-loyalists versus Obama- faithful dynamic in the White House? That could be a hindrance to the swift, smooth start the new administration dearly needs.”

Advisory Board

An advisory board that will help with transition planning includes former Clinton administration officials Carol Browner, who was the former president’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator; William Daley, who served as his commerce secretary; and Federico Pena, former transportation secretary.

Other Clinton officials who have been reported to be candidates for possible posts in an Obama White House include Richard Holbrooke, former United Nations ambassador, as secretary of state and Eric Holder, who was part of Obama’s vice-presidential selection committee and deputy attorney general for Clinton, as attorney general.

“What you’re going to see with Obama is a mixture of wise men and young Turks,” says Democratic consultant Peter Fenn.

While Obama may endure criticism for calling on some “usual suspects,” he’d be in more trouble if his picks proved unqualified, Fenn says.

“You don’t want the head of the Arabian Horse Association as your FEMA director,” says Fenn, referring to Michael Brown, Bush’s choice to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who was ousted after the botched government response to Hurricane Katrina.

Still Beloved

Clinton, 62, is still beloved by many in the Democratic Party, and his support and approval of Obama’s policies might well boost the new president’s efforts. When Clinton made his first campaign appearance for Obama in Orlando, Florida, on Oct. 1, he veered from prepared remarks to offer special praise for the way Obama was handling the financial crisis.

“He got his advisers on the phone, then he called all of mine, then he called some more,” Clinton said. “And you know what he said? Tell me what the problem is and how to fix it and don’t bother me with the politics. Let’s do the right thing, and we’ll sell it to America.”

Presidential historian Robert Dallek, a biographer of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, says Clinton veterans can be agents of change.

“They will be under Obama’s command,” he says. “It’s not as if they are going to say we’ve got to go back to what Bill Clinton was thinking 10 years ago.”

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