I’m not going to try to pretend to have detailed opinions about all the Democratic heavyweights who’ll be getting jobs in an Obama administration. But now that it’s official, I do think the Rahm Emanuel selection illustrates the kind of line Obama needs to talk to assemble a successful team. On the one hand, he’s promised change and campaigned — at some points very explicitly — on an agenda of offering something more than a third term of the Clinton administration. On the other hand, he’s wisely taken from the missteps of the early Carter and Clinton years the idea that he needs a team that’s not just smart and well-meaning, but that actually knows what it’s doing. And since Carter left office 28 years ago that means, in practice, a heavy reliance on people who served in senior-level posts in the Clinton administration.
But one thing Emanuel has going for him is that though he certainly was a high-level Clinton aid, he hasn’t just been cooling his heels in the private sector or in some sinecure somewhere since leaving. He ran for congress and won. Then he secured a leadership position at the DCCC and helped guide the Democrats to wins in 2006. Then he moved up in the House leadership while keeping a toe in the DCCC side of things. He’s built an independent identity and reputation and achieved success that transcends the fact that Clinton liked him enough to give him an important job. I think that’s similar to what you see if you consider the record of CAP/CAPAF bossman and now transition bigwig John Podesta — he followed his act as chief of staff by building a new important institution from scratch. Along with people like that, Obama seems inclined to avail himself of the expertise of veteran non-Clintonite legislators like Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle to help with congressional relations.
And I think that’s the right lens through which to look at many of these choices — we’re seeing a search for people who are experienced and accomplished, not just graybeard time-servers. People like to pay a lot of attention to left-right ideological tensions, but the reality is that these gaps aren’t especially big and any realistic configuration of the Obama administration is going to leave it to the left of the views of pivotal legislators like the Blue Dog caucus, Max Baucus, Olympia Snowe, etc. The interesting issue is whether the team will be smart and capable enough to get stuff done, not how much hypothetical stuff would they do were they able to operate without constraint.