In the earliest handicapping of the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination contest, one of the most repeated arguments against Barack Obama's chances of winning was that Hillary Rodham Clinton, the then-front-runner for the Democratic nomination, had hired so many experienced operatives that Obama, new at that level of play, would find himself outgunned in the fight. Looking back, political pros, even the most-partisan Republicans, concede that Obama put together the most sophisticated, brilliant, focused, and disciplined Democratic presidential campaign in history, one worthy of comparison to the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, the gold standard on the GOP side.
A third of the way into his first year as president, Obama has established a White House operation as impressive as any before; in fact, you can't throw a rock in a West Wing hallway without hitting someone who would otherwise be among the most experienced people in any previous White House. In some ways, Obama has discovered that effective governing requires a blend of the strongest elements of his campaign with the seasoning, experience, and awareness of the pitfalls that hurt previous presidencies.
A fabulous June 7 piece by Matt Bai in The New York Times Magazine argued that Obama, after running as an outsider, has "quietly but methodically assembled the most Congress-centric administration in modern history."
Whether one agrees with the Obama White House ideologically or substantively, one would be hard-pressed to cite an administration better connected with the personalities and dynamics of Capitol Hill. As we wake up to find the most significant change to health care policy since Medicare and the most important energy bill ever moving through Congress, this exhaustive list of experienced staff members with close relationships with the most important and centrally located Democrats on Capitol Hill explains how it is happening. A common thread through conversations with staffers is that they are so mindful of mistakes made by past administrations, particularly the Clinton administration, that they are determined not to repeat them.
The fact that Obama ran as an outsider and effectively had only two years of Senate experience before diving into the presidential campaign is ironic given the team he has created, whether on the White House staff as Bai detailed, or in the Cabinet. Even more ironic is that despite his National Journal rating as the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007, Obama's Cabinet is not one that the Democratic Left would have assembled. I doubt if MoveOn.org, CodePink, or others on the Democratic Left recommended former Marine Commandant James Jones for national security adviser or that Robert Gates be kept on as Defense secretary. It's also hard to imagine the Left recommending Dennis Blair, former commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, as director of national intelligence. These are not the choices expected of a doctrinaire liberal or an outsider.
On the economic side, if one defines the Democratic Party's economic spectrum as starting with former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and the AFL-CIO on the left, and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin on the right (or more accurately, the center), the vast majority of the key economic picks looks like a reunion of Rubin proteges and fans, whether it is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, or Jason Furman, his deputy. To be sure, there are others to their left, notably Council of Economic Advisers Chairwoman Christina Romer and council member Austan Goolsbee, a former University of Chicago faculty member with Obama. But clearly the most economically centrist wing of the Democratic Party is better represented in this administration than Obama's brief Senate voting record would suggest.
Perhaps the best quote in Bai's piece came from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who apparently is fond of telling other staff members, "The only nonnegotiable principle here is success. Everything else is negotiable." Combine that hard-nose pragmatism with a White House staff filled with congressional experience and it's not surprising that Obama is shaking Washington up as much and as quickly as any president since Franklin Roosevelt hit town in 1933.
Obama and his team certainly won't get everything they seek on health care, cap-and-trade legislation, and other priorities, but it's a good bet that they are not likely to come up empty-handed either.
This article appears in the June 13, 2009, edition of National Journal.