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Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought the campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee on the basis of “change” versus “experience”. But Mrs Clinton’s potential appointment to Mr Obama’s cabinet and the inclusion of dozens of former Clinton officials in the president-elect’s transition team have convinced many people that “experience” will be the ultimate victor.
Not so, says the Obama camp. “People are fundamentally misreading how Obama is making his appointments – this is about ‘change with experience’,” said an unpaid adviser. “He is choosing people who he believes can get things done – not on the basis of their ideology but because they are competent.”
Mr Obama is already contending with allegations that his administration is being colonised by “Clintonistas”.
Critics point to Rahm Emanuel, who will be chief of staff, and Greg Craig, a former acolyte to Bill Clinton, who will be Mr Obama’s senior White House counsel and who was Mr Clinton’s lawyer in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the likelihood that either Larry Summers or Tim Geithner – both former Clinton officials – will land the critical post of Treasury secretary.
Again, supporters say this is a misreading of the nature of his appointments – all of which have been to key White House positions rather than to cabinet posts.
“When people say Obama is being taken over by Clintonites they are missing the big picture,” says Andy Stern, head of the Service International Employees Union, America’s fastest growing union, which put 100,000 volunteers behind Mr Obama’s campaign.
“The way Obama is going about building his administration is about as
un-Clintonite as it comes.”
Perhaps the biggest illustration of this – ironically – is Mr Obama’s early overture to Mrs Clinton. Obama supporters say this demonstrates the president-elect is prepared to overlook past sins in favour of “getting things done” – a phrase that recurs in conversations about the process behind Mr Obama’s appointments.
“So far his appointments tell you one thing,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “There is no rewarding of allies and there is no punishing of enemies. It is all based on one criterion: ‘Who can best help me accomplish my goals?’ ”
The contrast with Bill Clinton’s approach to the presidency in 1992 goes deeper than that. The fact that Mr Obama is African-American liberates him from having to build a diverse cabinet that “looks like America” – a pre-occupation of Mr Clinton.
Mr Obama’s emphatic victory – the largest Democratic presidential vote share since 1964 – has given him far greater ability than Mr Clinton to ignore the cacophony of centre-left “special interests” that traditionally crowd out an incoming Democratic president. “The usual way is to obsess about having a non-white here, a labour leader there, a gay in that position,” says Mr Stern. “Being African-American Obama can focus on getting the best people in his administration rather than catering to all the Democratic constituencies.”
There is also a contrast in the low-key public profile Mr Obama has maintained since his victory. Unlike Mr Clinton, Mr Obama has felt little need to occupy the limelight.
Much attention has been paid to Mr Obama’s liking for Team of Rivals, a book about Abraham Lincoln’s skill in incorporating former adversaries into his cabinet. Less has been paid to another, perhaps more relevant, book that Mr Obama has praised: The Defining Moment, by Jonathan Alter, which chronicles Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office in 1933 as the Great Depression was taking hold.
The signs are that Mr Obama is preparing – like FDR – to focus on a few big actions, such as introducing universal healthcare and restructuring income taxes.
“Obama is planning on a transformation presidency,” says the unpaid adviser. “If he does a few big things right then nothing else will matter.”
● Eric Holder, a Washington attorney, is the leading contender to be Mr Obama’s nominee for attorney-general, people close to the transition process said. Mr Holder, deputy attorney- general under Mr Clinton, has not been formally offered the job, according to people familiar with the matter. He is likely to be offered the position pending the outcome of a vetting process.