On Obama's Team, Ex-Clinton Staffers Get Do-Over

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Robert Reich at a meeting of Obama's economic advisers in July. i

Robert Reich (center) is a former Clinton Cabinet official who is now a member of President-elect Obama's Transition Economic Advisory Board. Here, then-candidate Obama greets him during a meeting of economic advisers in July. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Robert Reich at a meeting of Obama's economic advisers in July.

Robert Reich (center) is a former Clinton Cabinet official who is now a member of President-elect Obama's Transition Economic Advisory Board. Here, then-candidate Obama greets him during a meeting of economic advisers in July.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President-elect Barack Obama's roster for his incoming administration is chock-full of veterans of the Clinton administration — from Hillary Clinton at the State Department to Bill Richardson at Commerce, Eric Holder at Justice and Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers at the White House.

Even President Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, is back — answering the phone for Obama transition chief John Podesta, himself a former chief of staff for Clinton.

Obama has been accused of assembling a government filled with retreads but, if so, they're retreads who have learned a lot of valuable lessons. Elaine Kamarck, a Clinton White House alumna who now teaches at Harvard, says Exhibit A is the transition itself.

"Obviously, this is very un-Clinton-like because Clinton was famous ... for having one of the more chaotic transitions of modern times," Kamarck says. "So clearly, both Obama and all the previous Clinton people associated have learned, and it bodes well for the administration."

The orderly transition is just what the calm and cautious president-elect wants. His personality has set the tone for the incoming administration, just as Bill Clinton — brilliant but undisciplined — set the tone for his. Then, there is the economic and political environment — which is very different from 1992, when Clinton came into office.

Finding Opportunity In A Bad Economy

Back then, a recession was receding, and the big imperative was to reduce the deficit. Now, says Robert Reich, a former Clinton Cabinet official and current member of Obama's Transition Economic Advisory Board, the Democrats' agenda is riding a wave of the worst economic news since the Great Depression.

"Nobody, obviously, wished for this kind of economic crisis, but it is true that when the country is in an economic crisis, they turn to Democrats, whether that Democrat be Franklin D. Roosevelt or the president-elect, Barack Obama," he says. "And the country understands that something quite substantial has to be done by government, because government is the spender of last resort."

While the deficit has ballooned again this year, it's a far lower priority now, and far less of an impediment to a Democratic wish list of policy changes pent up for decades.

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, said at a Wall Street Journal conference last month. "And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before. ... What used to be long-term problems, be they in the health care area, energy area, education area — things ... that were long-term are now immediate and must be dealt with."

The Obama economic team is putting together a stimulus package worth as much as $1 trillion that will include middle-class tax cuts, plus down payments on energy independence through investments in green technology. It also will make a beginning at overhauling health care by computerizing medical records. None of that would be possible without the political mandate the recession has given the new administration.

"Fortunately, as tough as times are right now — and things are going to get worse before they get better — there is a convergence between circumstances and agenda," Obama said on NBC's Meet the Press.

A Second Chance To Get It Right

Obama also is benefiting from a reservoir of talent and experience — something Clinton didn't have in 1992, but was able to leave behind for a successor.

"Let's not forget that when Bill Clinton was elected president, Democrats had been out of the White House for 12 years, and then prior to that, we had a single-term presidency," says Anita Dunn, the chief communications officer for the Obama campaign. "So it wasn't like there was a huge brain trust of people that ... Bill Clinton had to draw from in 1992."

But there is now — and the new president, who ran as an outsider, has assembled a Cabinet of Washington insiders. In fact, he's relied more heavily on Capitol Hill and the Washington establishment than either Clinton or Jimmy Carter.

Leon Panetta was one of the few members of Congress to join the Clinton Cabinet back then, and he says members today have a completely different attitude. After being thrown out of power in Congress in 1994 and needing a dozen years to get back in, Democrats do not want to mess up again.

"Part of the problem in '92 was the fact that Democrats had been in power for a long period of time, and there was a kind of take-it-for-granted approach ... that they'd be able to do whatever they wanted to do," Panetta says. "And I think, ultimately, this time around, Democrats recognize that power can be fading."

Kamarck says she and other Democrats understand they've been given something rare in American politics — a do-over.

"The second term of the Clinton administration, frankly, got lost. It got lost in impeachment, and so there was a sense that we didn't really have two terms of a Democratic president, we had one term and a couple months," she says. "And so there's a big agenda, and there's now a big mandate to move on that agenda. So I think Democrats are pretty excited that we do get a second chance at power. And they're determined this time to make sure that we get the policy agenda done."



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