In recent weeks, as Barack Obama has stocked his administration with one former Clinton official after another, the cry has gone up from the pundits and blogs: “Where are the new faces?” “You call this change?”
Actually, yes. For the first time in four decades, a Democratic administration is going to hit the ground running rather than fall on its face because it will be staffed by people who know how the federal government works. That’s change all right—the kind we can believe in.
Ever wonder why Republican administrations start fast and Democratic ones start ugly? It’s partly because Republicans draw on experience. In 1981, Ronald Reagan ran circles around Tip O’Neill and the Congressional Democrats, jacking up military spending and slashing tax rates 25 percent. There were several reasons for this early success, but one of them was that although Reagan was new to the White House, many of his top advisors were not. His masterful Chief of Staff, James Baker, had served under Gerald Ford. His Secretaries of State and Defense had both worked for Richard Nixon, as had his National Security Advisor and head of the CIA. To be sure, Reagan brought in Californians like Edwin Meese and William Clark, but his most effective appointees—Baker and later George Schultz—were veterans of Republican administrations past.
For the first time in four decades, a Democratic administration is going to hit the ground running rather than fall on its face because it will be staffed by people who know how the federal government works.
The same was true for George W. Bush. You may not like what Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld set out to do for—or to—the country, but they were wildly successful in doing it, especially early on, because they knew how Washington worked. Not only were Cheney and Rumsfeld bureaucratic black belts themselves, but they stocked the administration with allies like Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Hadley, Scooter Libby, and Andrew Card, who had served with them before. The result was that even though Bush lost the popular vote, he got his early agenda of tax cuts, missile defense, and education reform passed, even before 9/11 sent his popularity through the roof.
Now switch to the Democrats. Jimmy Carter had a few experienced advisors, like Vice President Walter Mondale and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. But his White House was dominated by Georgians like Hamilton Jordan and Bert Lance who amplified the inexperience and self-righteousness of their boss. Almost immediately, Carter ran afoul of his own party’s leaders in Congress, who repeatedly passed bills he opposed. Things got so bad that after Congress tore his tax package to shreds, Carter called its tax committees “ravenous wolves.”
Clinton didn’t do much better. Despite passing NAFTA and a deficit reduction package, his first two years were a comedy—and tragedy—of errors, marred by the gays in the military fiasco, several aborted cabinet nominations, the health care disaster, and humiliating reversals on Haiti, Bosnia, and China. Part of the reason was that Clinton—wary of being associated with the much-maligned Carter administration—chose relatively few of its veterans. From Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who had never before worked in the Pentagon, to Chief of Staff Mack McLarty, an old Arkansas buddy, to George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers, both in their teens when Carter left office, Clinton’s staff was plagued by inexperience. Things only got better when Clinton brought in old hands like David Gergen and William Perry, who helped right the ship.
So what Obama is doing is smart—unusually so for a Democrat. Knowing that he is new to Washington himself, he’s surrounding himself with people who aren’t. He’s doing something neither Carter nor Clinton could: taking advantage of the fact that the Democratic presidency before his was a success. And as a result, his first year in office probably won’t be amateur hour, which is a good thing, since we can’t exactly afford that right now.
The liberal blogosphere is worried that all these Clintonites spell timid centrism, but that is probably wrong. Remember, Reagan stocked his administration with people who had worked for Nixon or Ford, and yet he pursued a far more conservative path. Similarly, Obama will likely be more ideologically aggressive than Clinton—even with many of the same appointees—because he is governing in a different time. Clinton, after all, won the presidency by running as a New Democrat, and even then failed to garner 50 percent of the vote in what was still basically Reagan’s America. In 1993, he faced a Congress where conservative Southern Democrats held sway, and then after 1994, where the Gingrich revolutionaries ran wild. Obama, by contrast, campaigned as a more conventional liberal and won a clear majority. The Democrats he’ll be facing in Congress are more numerous and more liberal, and the public—according to polls—is more open to big government than it has been in decades. And not only has the country changed, so have the Clintonites themselves. On economics, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and their disciples acknowledge that the government must do more to counter globalization’s destructive effects. On foreign policy, the Iraq War has chastened the Clintonites’ faith in military force. Hillary and Obama genuinely differed on Iraq in 2002, but by the end of the campaign, they had largely converged.
So President Obama’s agenda will likely be bolder than President Clinton’s because political circumstances allow it to be. And he’ll likely pass most of that agenda, partly because he’s employing ex-Clintonites who know how to get things done. It’s the best combination possible, and gives Democrats a better chance at dramatic change than they’ve had in 75 years. Only liberals could still find reason to be glum.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.