The meaning behind the utterly surreal episode in the White House press room several weeks ago in which former President Bill Clinton dazzled the assembled reporters while Barack Obama left for a Christmas party is now clear. It was a deviously subtle way to announce the Obama administration was coming to an end, to be replaced by the third Clinton administration.
The Obamalogues that populated the White House staff are largely gone, at least from senior positions. Left wing stalwarts Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and most lately Press Secretary Robert Gibbs have been banished to Chicago. Larry Summers and the rest of the economic first team--save for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner--are off to Wall Street or academia or back into retirement. Their replacements, at least those that have been announced, are solid centrists and veterans of the Clinton administration, the latest picks being former Clinton Commerce Secretary Bill Daley as White House chief of staff and Clinton White House veteran Gene Sperling, who is once again headed to the National Economic Council. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Make no mistake about it. The White House, which has been seemingly adrift for the last two years, and which, frankly, blew the mandate it had been handed in the 2008 elections, is once again in the hands of adults. The shellacking the Democrats took in the 2010 elections, the blame for which falls squarely at the president's feet, is only part of the reason for the move. Party elders have obviously realized that, for all his promise, President Obama is largely an “empty suit,” who, like Jimmy Carter in 1980, threatens to take all of them down for a generation or more.
It is not simply a matter of the White House needing to move away from the left and back towards the center; it's that, despite all that Obama's election augured, the party has almost nothing upon which to base a successful re-election effort two years hence. Unemployment remains well above 9 percent, the economy is still in the doldrums, federal spending is out of control, and the all-too-critical bloc of independent voters--who by voting overwhelmingly for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, nearly rendered the Republicans irrelevant--have gone over to the other side in huge numbers. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
With these new appointments, Obama appears to be falling back on a “whatever works” strategy, which requires him to recycle key elements of the post-1994 Clinton administration who know how to get things done. It matters little what they accomplish--they simply must have something encouraging to tell the voters and some record of success to which they can point come the next election. Otherwise, they are doomed--and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that.