So far, it's in with the old

Obama's White House is beginning to look a lot like Clinton's. Some supporters of change fear politics as usual.

November 22, 2008|Christi Parsons and Peter Nicholas | Parsons and Nicholas are writers in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — The roster shaping up for the Barack Obama administration is starting to look a little familiar, with an ironic pattern emerging as one name after another is added to it.

A striking number of new and potential team members can trace their professional history to the same political birthplace -- the administration of one President Bill Clinton.

There's Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of course, the former first lady now on track to become secretary of State. And Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the former Bill Clinton aide who will be Obama's chief of staff. And Eric H. Holder Jr., once deputy to former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and now Obama's likely pick for attorney general. There's the new White House lawyer, the budget director, and so on.

For all his talk of transformation, Obama's earliest decisions suggest something odd: The more things change, the more they look like the 1990s. Some see a Clinton Restoration in the making.

"Voters hoping to see Obama bring a lot of fresh faces to D.C. must be disappointed," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "So far, it's been more like than"

It makes sense that the incoming Democratic president might fish for talent in the same pond as the last Democratic president. If Obama is looking for depth of expertise, there's a good chance that many job prospects were in or around the White House a decade ago.

But there's a certain irony to the developing pattern, given Obama's campaign pledge not to spend the next four years "refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s."

"There's no question about the talent level," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and senior policy advisor to Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. "They have a public relations problem in the appearance of not really fulfilling the, quote, 'change' mandate."

The Clinton alums began to populate the new team right away, when Obama picked Emanuel from the Illinois congressional delegation for the first big assignment. Emanuel, who had served as political director in the Clinton White House, agreed to help assemble and captain the Obama team as chief of staff.

Since then, the Clinton names have flowed plentifully, with more than two dozen set either to serve on an Obama transition team or to actually take positions in the new administration. Gregory Craig, who was President Clinton's impeachment lawyer, will serve as White House counsel. Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff, Ron Klain, will do the same job for Joe Biden. Gore's counsel, Lisa Brown, will be staff secretary.

At the same time, Sen. Clinton appears likely to head the State Department. By some lights, Obama never really considered Clinton as his vice presidential running mate, instead floating her name for the job without going to the trouble of formally vetting her.

But developments this week suggest she got a more thorough review this time around.

Hoping to ease qualms about how the former president's tangled business dealings might affect his wife's shot at the job, Bill Clinton even gave the Obama transition team a complete list of more than 200,000 donors to his presidential library and charitable foundation, according to a Democrat familiar with discussions between the two camps.

The former president had not previously released this material, arguing that many donors had given money under the assumption that the gifts would not be disclosed.

With that donor list in hand, Obama had important new information needed to investigate whether making Sen. Clinton secretary of State might pose any conflicts of interest.

Clinton loyalists saw her prospects of becoming secretary of State improve as rivals for the position fell away. Allies of Clinton consider her expected nomination a smart one.

"You have to give the president-elect an incredible amount of credit for building a Cabinet with stars in it," said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, credited with helping Clinton win that state's primary. "It goes against the grain. You're told, 'Don't have anyone in there with their own base of support, or too famous.' "

Still, Clinton could complicate things. Obama has a vast network of volunteers whom he is counting on to help him get what he wants out of Congress -- supporters who worked explicitly for "change."

Tom Bethany, 22, is an Obama voter who briefly ran the Obama campus campaign organization at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He says he's worried about the abundance of people with ties to the Clinton White House landing jobs.

"I think Obama's message of change could very easily be lost," Bethany said, "if he picks the same people who've been running in Washington and promising the same things for years. . . . There are a lot of young Democrats I know who wanted change and wanted something different."

James Lautzenheiser, 27, an Obama volunteer from Ohio, is also dubious.

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