By Matthew Cain
Former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Florida during the 2008 presidential campaign. Photo by Britt Reints.
When I was in college, I worked in the kitchen at the main dining hall. My family lived close enough to campus that some summers, while waiting for my summer camp job to start, I would spend a few weeks in the kitchen’s stockroom, helping them through special events.
My favorite special event was reunion week. Working during reunion week was when I learned both how to tap a keg and just how much more devastating hangovers become after graduation.
But the most fascinating part was just observing the celebrating reunioners. These people hadn’t seen each other in five, 10, or 15 years (or more), but conversation came just as easily as if they were back in school — and often about the same topics. After exchanging pleasantries (“How you been?” “Good. Job’s good.” “Kids?” “No, you?”) people invariably fell back into the same reminiscences.
And their actions fit the pattern too. Each day’s tales of school and parties led seamlessly into actual parties at the school. Even though it had been years since graduation, people fell back into the old habits that they were familiar with in school — even going so far as to pretend they enjoyed Keystone Light again.
That’s why criticisms calling President Obama’s first term Cabinet little more than a Clinton administration reunion have merit. Many of the principal decision-makers who joined Obama in the Roosevelt Room — from Rahm Emmanuel and Eric Holder to Hillary Clinton herself — also held key posts in the Clinton administration.
It all started in the transition. John Podesta, Clinton’s former Chief of Staff, was the director of the transition team in charge of vetting and hiring most of the lower and mid-level appointments. Whether by plan or by accident, he found a lot of people from the Clinton administration.
Clinton veterans guided the Obama administration’s strategy through many of its biggest fights. Obama’s first three Chiefs of Staff (not counting acting CoS Pete Rouse) were Clintonites. Pursuing Clinton’s tactic of strategic concessions in order to blunt Republican opposition may have seemed like a good idea at the beginning of the administration, but outsiders were calling for a reevaluation after the fight over health care reform.
On health care, the administration and its congressional allies gave ground on many key liberal issues to try to attract Republican support. As anyone who paid any attention remembers, it didn’t work.
Even after eking out a marginal victory on health care, the administration didn’t waver, maintaining its triangulation strategy through 2011 and most of 2012. It wasn’t until campaign rhetoric began to heat up that the strategy appeared to change, but by then it was too late to get anything passed.
Aside from policy, the Clintonites guided the administration’s priorities, especially on economic fronts.
Other than the officially powerless Council of Economic Advisers, once anchored by Christina Romer and Austan Goolsbee, almost all of Obama’s economic aides, from Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to Gene Sperling and Jack Lew, were Clintonites; more specifically, Rubinites — proteges of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. So many Rubinites joined Obama’s team that The New York Times called it “a virtual Rubin constellation.”
Michael Grunwald’s excellent book about the Recovery Act, The New New Deal, relays a telling story. At an early meeting of the economic policy team for the Obama transition, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities founder Robert Greenstein, the only member of the economic team who didn’t serve in the Clinton White House, “endured some ribbing because his PowerPoint slides weren’t formatted like everyone else’s.” Reunion groupthink can cause more than just PowerPoint presentations to look identical, though.
Grunwald quotes a participant in the transition economic meetings talking about the differences between 1993, when Clinton took office, and 2008, while the economy collapsed. Clinton focused on deficit reduction, but Obama’s immediate focus would have to be stimulus. “Every single person in that room agreed that in the long term, you had to get the deficit under control,” Grunwald quotes an anonymous source saying, “but every single person agreed that first there had to be a huge stimulus package.”
Every single one of the administration’s early economic advisors – many of whom went on to key posts within the administration – agreed that, even in the face of the worst economic catastrophe in decades, deficit reduction was a priority. Hearing that advice from a unified group of wise men (and they were mostly men), no doubt caused even the outsider president to give outsized weight to the insider ideas.
After four years in government, many Clintonites are still in place. Geithner is gone, replaced by Jack Lew. Summers is gone, too, replaced by Gene Sperling. Thomas Perez, the Labor Secretary nominee, Ernest Moniz, Energy Secretary nominee, and Sylvia Matthews Burwell, incoming budget director, all worked for Clinton.
But there will be some reunion crashers in Obama’s second term. Dennis McDonough, the new White House Chief of Staff, got his start in the Senate, working in Tom Daschle’s office. With McDonough calling the shots, it’s possible that the new rhetorical strategy could turn into a legislative strategy.
Also new to the team are Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell, formerly CEO of outdoor company REI, and Gina McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to lead the EPA. As the heads of the Interior Department and EPA, Jewell and McCarthy will help guide the administration’s ambitious clean energy goals. With Obama’s recent focus on climate change, those women could be the most important new members of the Cabinet.
It remains to be seen whether the reunion crashers can take control of the party. But Obama and his administration need to stop living in the past if they want to make the bold change the President promised.