[from poster Stephen Fox, Contributing Editor Santa Fe Sun News: I have been writing for a long time about this, and I hope it will be Sec. of State Bill Richardson, Sec. of Health Howard Dean, and Attorney General Jerry Brown. Why not have the best of the best?]
There'll be a crush of cameras at the front door of the White House on Jan. 20 as scores of media outlets scramble to record the moment when the new president walks in. But wait -- who will be sliding in quietly behind him? They're the ones who will spend the next four years whispering in the president's ear, sitting in strategy sessions, running presidential councils, filling agency slots and pulling the levers of executive power. They'll make up "the administration," and they'll affect everything from economic policies to war, so it's worth getting a sense of them in advance of the election.
For a clue as to what kinds of people either McCain or Obama would carry into office, look at the top campaign advisers, fundraisers and staffers already around them, for they're likely to move right along with their man. These people both reflect and shape a president's agenda, sometimes wielding the influence to alter both the overall direction and the specific substance of a presidency.
Take the corporatization of Bill Clinton's administration. He had run a populist-minded campaign in 1992, pledging to challenge corporate greed and promising to be the president of working families. Come '93, however, such corporate hands as Robert Rubin were awarded strategic positions. A prince of Wall Street who'd been one the campaign's top fundraisers, Rubin was ensconced as head of Clinton's economic council -- and he served there as corporate America's inside hit man, responsible for taking populist proposals down into a dark basement and throttling them.
In his first State of the Union speech, for example, Clinton proposed that tax write-offs for a corporate CEO's bloated paycheck be limited to "only" the first million bucks. The very next night, CEOs of several major corporations swarmed Rubin at a Manhattan dinner, wailing about Clinton's "cheap populism." Rubin, who'd been a $26 million man at Goldman Sachs, definitely felt their pain, and he smoothed their ruffled feathers with these words: "That's not the real Bill Clinton."
Apparently not. With Rubin counseling that it wasn't good to make CEOs jittery, Clinton immediately dropped the idea. He never brought it up again.
"Tell me with whom you walk," goes the old adage, "and I'll tell you who you are." Who is walking with McCain and Obama? While it has been fun to speculate about who might be the vice president choices of this year's candidates, it's more instructive to rummage through the names on the campaign teams to see who might go inside with the winner.
This month we'll give you a tour of Obama's brain trust, and in the next issue we'll look into the McCain campaign.
The Obama Watch
If progressives look at Obama's team through the conventional political lens, they'll get worried. With some exceptions, these are not the policy people you'd expect to see -- they're not a phalanx of solid, progressive activists, thinkers and leaders with recognizable names. Some O-teamers are even graduates of the University of Chicago's economics department, home of laissez-faire guru Milton Friedman; some are tied to Rubin (Rubin himself is a sometime adviser); a few hail directly from the ranks of corporate America.
Before panicking, however, let's note that little about the Obama campaign is conventional. My personal impression is that he intends to be a serious president who's willing to experiment in order to come up with policies and programs that actually achieve progressive goals rather than merely rubber-stamp the long-preserved agendas of Washington-based Democratic Party insiders.
The upside of his having little Washington experience is that he's free of its constraints and more open to grassroots ideas and unconventional thinking. Obama seems to see the next four years as a transformative opportunity for our country -- a time to make a generational change in leadership, to break with bipartisan corporatism and global saber-rattling, to restore a sense of common purpose (through such big initiatives as universal health care and rebuilding America's infrastructure), to adopt an approach to governing that tries to bring outsiders inside, and to link the democratic potential of the Internet to America's historic pursuit of egalitarianism.
No small task. To get there, he has assembled advisers and staff who can help him find and nurture ideas that work. His people are mostly young, nonideological, pragmatic, expert in their fields, often wonkish, and willing to go against established opinion (of either the Right or Left). This is different, it's risky, and it's exciting.
The glue for this team is not its uniform progressive credentials, but Obama himself. Again: This is risky. I might have to eat these words later, but I think he has a deep core of progressive values, honed by his life experience as a global child and a community organizer. Accordingly, he seems to have assembled people around him who have the expertise to help him make the big changes he has in mind. He's the rudder, they're the sails.
Personal digression: I relate to this. When I was elected Texas ag commissioner in 1982, I knew I wanted to help small farmers, workers, consumers and the environment. But I needed people who actually knew what to do to make a real-life difference for this broad constituency. So we brought together a diverse staff, ranging from corporate food marketers to community organizers, and I gave them the same mandate that Franklin Roosevelt gave his team in 1933: Do something. If it works, do it some more. If it doesn't work, do something else.