Friday, October 31, 2008

Smooth Transitioning: Using the Clinton Experience as a Model of What Not To Do


It seems that over the last few days speculation is running rampant on who would populate a Barack Obama administration. Though much of this speculation has surrounded who would be tapped as chief of staff, the game has moved on to other positions. Ben Smith of Politico has an excellent rundown of the potential musical chairs that would take place in the event of an Obama victory.

Two strands run through all these various stories: 1) Obama would move with light speed to lock up his White House staff and cabinet; and, 2) an Obama administration would be dominated by former Clinton staffers. If true on both counts, this would be a smart move by the Obama folks.


The Clinton transition was a disaster for a number of reasons, not least of which was because it moved at a glacial pace. The White House staff was not in place until just before the inaugural on January 20, 1993--far too late to properly organize for the flurry of events that will face the White House in just Week 1.

Also, because of the prejudices due to the perceived failure of the Carter White House, experienced Carter aides were essentially blacklisted from being hired at the outset of the Clinton administration. Instead, young campaign staffers who had never worked in Washington before or done much of anything in politics except working on campaigns were placed into all sorts of high level positions on the White House staff. Thus, the Clinton White House bus in those first days was driven by a bunch of youngsters who had just gotten their temporary licenses and were handed the keys to drive in a city in which they were unfamiliar. In other words: a recipe for disaster.


Obama and his team, if the reporting is correct, seems to have learned the lessons of the 1993 fiasco. Picking a team of experienced White House aides early is the surest way to hit the ground running. A drawback is that leaves only one bench of White House veterans for Obama to draw on: former Clinton officials. The Carter people, for the most part, are too old. The pace of the White House and the 80 hour work weeks dictates that the staff as a whole be younger, at least in many of the middle and lower rungs. However, this does not mean that an Obama White House would only have former Clintonistas in it. It would surely be peppered with campaign staff and Illinois loyalists. However, the Clinton folks would make up the largest contingent--as they should. A new White House needs to draw on veteran hands--people who know how the place operates and where the bodies are buried.

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