Barack Obama’s Change Administration Full of Old Faces

He promised change but brings old hands. Good.

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There are two models for staffing the administration of a new president who rode promises of change to an electoral victory. In my lifetime (which has seen a tremendous growth in the size of the White House staff), the traditional Democratic one has not worked terribly well. Barack Obama seems to be going in the other direction. Good for him.

Over the past 36 years, Democrats and Republicans alike have come to Washington promising to change the capital city, which is, as Bill Clinton put it in 1993, "often a place of intrigue and calculation." Both Democrats and Republicans have brought a mix of new faces and old Washington hands into the White House with them, but Democrats have tended to err on the side of new faces, while Republicans love their old hands.

Ask yourself: Which party has produced more initially effective presidents?

Jimmy Carter brought the famous " Georgia Mafia" to town with him and snubbed the Washington social scene—he would be sure not to go native. He also got little done, irking should-be congressional allies in his own party and serving out a single term before heading back south.

Ronald Reagan promised change from Carter and declared government to be the enemy. But he understood that you need to know how to actually handle the levers of power before you can use them to advance your agenda. Reagan had campaigned as a bold conservative but brought moderate pragmatists into his administration to help him enact his agenda. He even mingled with the right people at Georgetown dinners.

Bill Clinton was the next change president (George H. W. Bush having run a stay the course campaign) and brought the Arkansas version of the Georgia Mafia with him. His chief of staff, Mack McLarty, was genial but ineffective. Other initial Clinton fresh faces ranged from the comically corrupt to the simply tragic. Clinton brought fresh-faced change to Washington, but his first years in office were an uneven, lurching mess. Eventually, Clinton figured out how to right the ship (including hiring Washington vet Leon Panetta to run the White House).

George W. Bush seemed to inherit his father's administration and, as a minority president, managed to pass a sweeping education overhaul and a mammoth, politically unpopular tax cut.

Do you see the pattern here?

So Barack Obama is bringing people into his administration who have— gasp!—been in Washington before. Certainly, this runs against Democratic tradition, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

What of the promises of "change"?

As a Reaganite Obama supporter told today's Washington Post:

"The transformative part of his presidency is the president himself," said Douglas W. Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and supported Obama. "The most important voice for change is his. And change is accomplished in our system not by erasing all of the lines on paper but by having people who understand government's structure and so can reinforce lines that have been wrongfully distorted or broken in terms of separation of powers."


  • Click here to read more by Robert Schlesinger.
  • Click here to read more on the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.
  • Click here to read more about the Obama transition.