It would be foolish to deny that Emanuel is partisan, to be sure. But above all he is a bone-deep pragmatist—and also a Grade-A pain in the ass, a foulmouthed, ball-busting, pipe-hitting practitioner of realpolitik, the perfect bad cop to balance the soothing, above-the-fray posture that Obama hopes to strike. It would also be nuts to claim that the left has zero reason to distrust Emanuel, whose role in the Clinton administration (on crime, welfare, nafta, and much else) was as a kind of centrist enforcer. Indeed, several sources in the Obamasphere tell me Emanuel’s installment is meant to send a crystalline message to congressional liberals: that the president-elect has no intention of allowing them to set the agenda, let alone roll him as an earlier generation of Capitol Hill pooh-bahs did to Clinton in 1993 and 1994.
Emanuel’s and Summer’s up-close experience of that imbroglio is perceived by many in Obama’s orbit an indisputable advantage. But for other Obamaphiles, it fuels the anxiety that the regimes of the new boss and the old boss will end up resembling one another all too much. It’s easy to trace the origins of this discomfort: Its source is Obama, who spent much of the primaries arguing that it was time to turn the page from the Clintonian “triangulation and poll-driven politics.” Yet now an array of Clintonites are intimately involved in Obama’s transition, from John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff and now the transition’s co-chairman, to Greg Craig and Jim Steinberg, both former Clinton foreign-policy officials who are said to be the leading two contenders to be Obama’s national-security adviser.
The problems with complaining about the supposed Clintonification of the Obama administration are many. The first and more glaring is that it reflects a woefully inadequate grasp of history and of what’s required to build a presidency from scratch. For the better part of two decades, the Democratic Party, like it or not, was Clinton’s party. A generation of policy and political people earned their stripes in WJC’s administration, and without them, Obama would be at a great disadvantage, if not completely doomed, in trying to enact an agenda of any ambition whatsoever. His own inner circle is startlingly small and his time on the national stage far too brief to have amassed a substantial coterie of seasoned advisers.
Moreover, it’s already evident that Obama has every intention of balancing the Clinton holdovers with his own homegrown true believers. Emanuel is as much an Obama person as a Clinton one—the two men are tight. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, appears to be headed for a senior position in the White House; so does his communications czar, Robert Gibbs. And everyone in Obama-land assumes that the president-elect will be taking along with him an assortment of members of his Chicago mafia, people like housing-developer Valerie Jarrett and parking-lot magnate Marty Nesbitt, who are among his closest consiglieres and dearest friends. They also expect significant roles for major Washington players, such as former senator Tom Daschle, whom no one in his right mind would describe as Clintonites.
What’s easy to forget is that, in building his administration, the audience that Obama is—or should be—playing to isn’t hard-core, stone-cold Democrats. It’s the broader electorate, much of which has invested great hope in Obama but continues to watch him closely, waiting for proof that his promise of fundamental change isn’t, well, just words. What that audience would regard as more of the same wouldn’t be a handful of Clintonites in high positions but the sight of Obama’s capitulating to the hoary interest-group posse that’s just begun to rear its head, or to the demands of the extant congressional party Establishment. To a striking degree, and by design, Obama’s victory was won independently of these forces. He owes them precious little. And that gives him the freedom to build a government on the singular criteria of its capacity to get shit done.
The heartening thing is that, so far, Obama seems to get this deeply. It’s early days, of course, but both the Emanuel and Podesta appointments reflect clarity of purpose, maturity, and cold-eyed calculation in roughly equal measure. The choice of Summers would demonstrate all these things, too—along with a bracing lack of concern for what the carpers and ankle-biters think. For Obama, the trick will be remembering that change does indeed require change agents, but that agents of change can be found in the unlikeliest of places: the Clinton camp, Old Washington, and even the GOP. In 1992, Clinton promised an administration that looked like America. Obama is promising something much more lofty—transcendence, transfiguration, a new frontier. But a government that actually, you know, works would be a fine place to start.