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Is Obama recreating the Clinton era?

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama ran for the White House as the consummate Washington outsider.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at a joint rally in Florida, 29 October 2008
Mr Obama has appointed many of his predecessor's former advisers

Hillary Clinton, his chief rival for the Democratic Party's nomination, by contrast promised "readiness", based largely on her experience as a White House insider during her husband's period in office.

"It took one Clinton to clean up after the first George Bush," she used to say in her stump speeches. "It'll take another Clinton to clean up after this one."

Mrs Clinton lost the battle for the nomination, and her rival went on to win the general election.

But is he now re-assembling Bill Clinton's governing team from the 1990s?

And will the Obama White House be similar to Mr Clinton's - but with a different man in the Oval Office?

Polarised camps

Mr Obama's inner circle during the election campaign was full of people who had never joined the Clinton club in the 1990s.

David Axelrod, Mr Obama's chief strategist, was a veteran of Chicago politics, having worked for a succession of Chicago mayors in the 1990s, as well as on Mr Obama's senate campaign in 2004.

Mr Obama is attempting to learn from his predecessor's mistakes, and draw on the Democratic Party's well of expertise

And the other David - David Plouffe, Mr Obama's campaign manager - had worked for the Democratic leadership in the US House of Representatives during the Clinton years, at a time when many House Democrats were getting frustrated with President Clinton for his perceived centrism and missed opportunities.

A number of other senior staffers had a background in the offices of congressional big-hitters Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt.

Most of the Clinton-era political superstars had naturally gravitated towards Mrs Clinton's campaign, but the lack of Clintonites on Mr Obama's staff had the effect of polarising the two camps.

And, at times, Mr Obama was less than complimentary about Mr Clinton's time in office.

"Through Democratic and Republican administrations, it hasn't gotten better for regular folks," he said at a rally in California before the state's primary in February.

And his attacks on "triangulation" and "special interests" - which were central to his campaign message - were viewed as digs at the Clinton years, just as much as they were seen as criticisms of George W Bush.

Clinton veterans

Now that the divisive primary campaign is over, however, and with a general election victory under his belt, Mr Obama has begun reaching out to the Clinton camp - and, most significantly, staffing his transition team with former Clinton insiders.

Rahm Emanuel
Mr Emanuel's centrist views could alarm some on the left

Although David Axelrod is still on board, the most prominent figures in the transition are both veterans of the Clinton era: Rahm Emanuel, who will serve as Mr Obama's White House chief of staff, was a deputy chief of staff in the 1990s; and John Podesta, one of the co-chairs of Mr Obama's transition team, was Mr Clinton's chief of staff from 1998 to 2001.

All in all, 31 of the 47 transition or staff posts that Mr Obama has filled so far have gone to people with ties to the Clinton administration, Politico has reported.

Eleven of the 12 members of his Transition Advisory Board are Clinton veterans.

And, according to officials quoted by a number of US media outlets, Mr Obama is even considering picking the biggest Clinton insider of them all - Hillary Clinton - as his Secretary of State.

Mr Obama's embrace of former Clintonites is - like his earlier eschewal - partly born of necessity.

If Mr Obama wants to get advice from Democrats with White House experience, then the only resource he really has is the Clinton White House.

Mr Clinton, because the preceding Democratic president had served such a long time before him, did not himself have access to the expertise that Mr Obama has at his disposal.

As a result, Mr Clinton's team lacked experience - and many observers cite this as the chief reason for the perceived missteps in the early years of his administration.

Mr Obama is attempting to learn from his predecessor's mistakes, and draw on the Democratic Party's well of expertise.

Anger

But can this team of rivals and veterans really deliver the "change" that Mr Obama promised his supporters on the campaign trail?

When Mr Emanuel was appointed, some of Mr Obama's allies on the left expressed alarm.

Mr Emanuel is known as something of a centrist in the party, and he fought hard in the 1990s for the Nafta trade deal, opposed by many on the populist wing of the party.

Similarly, if Mr Obama were to appoint Mrs Clinton as Secretary of State, it could anger those in the party who objected to her stance in favour of the Iraq war.

So will Mr Obama's administration be a retread of the Clinton years?

History tells us that presidents who appoint veteran advisers do not always turn out to be repeats of their predecessors, says Jonathan Chait of the New Republic magazine.

"When George W Bush ascended to the presidency in 2000, there were numerous stories about the proliferation of veterans of his father's administration, and whether this signaled that his would be a repeat," he tells me.

"This proved - here I am understating - not to be the case."

It is unsurprising that Mr Obama has chosen to tap the Clinton talent-pool for his transition team. It is a pragmatic, common-sense move.

But it could be a sign that the differences between the rival camps during the primary were overstated.

Ultimately, the proof that Mr Obama is changing Washington will come not from his staffing picks - but from the policies his White House adopts.

By appointing experienced hands, he has certainly shown that he means to push through his agenda - which may yet prove to be more liberal than Mr Clinton's - using the best possible talent at his disposal.



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