'Change' Candidate Obama Enlists Hill Veterans for West Wing

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama liked to defend himself against charges of inexperience by calling for fresh perspective in Washington. "The American people . . . understand the real gamble is having the same old folks doing the same old things over and over and over again and somehow expecting a different result," he would say to big applause.

But as the president-elect's White House team takes shape, it is becoming clear that Obama in fact sees value in having plenty of the "same old folks" around to help him. After selecting as his chief of staff Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a House power broker and Clinton White House veteran, Obama over the weekend added several other top advisers with deep seasoning in Washington and on Capitol Hill in particular.

Although Obama has shown a fondness for surrounding himself with big thinkers and visionary experts, his White House hires suggest that his West Wing, at least, will place a premium on skilled legislative practitioners.

Congressional Democrats are taking the hires of Hill veterans as an encouraging sign that Obama -- the first member of Congress to be elected president since John F. Kennedy -- plans to work closely with them, which they regard as a welcome change from Bush's administration, which even many Hill Republicans said left them out of the loop.

The staff choices "represent a new era in cooperative relations between the White House and Congress," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). "It bodes well for an extraordinary period of legislative accomplishment -- for creating an atmosphere in which legislative victories will be maximized."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said the Hill expertise is particularly needed given the shaky economy. "It sends a very clear message . . . that he is ready to work with us from Day One," she said. "We need to get past the 'getting to know you' phase quickly, and this helps get that done."

But some veterans of Republican White Houses are asking how Obama's promise of a clean break with the past squares with his elevation of so many Washington insiders skilled in partisan warfare.

"This is more 'Groundhog Day' than a fresh start," said Peter Wehner, a former senior adviser to Bush who is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Wehner said he thinks Obama is trying to avoid the mistakes of the Clinton administration, which stumbled early on, but he warned against "overlearning history." "It's reassuring having people who have been around the block -- it means he'll step on fewer banana peels in the early going," he said. But "this just doesn't have the feel of a political transformation," he added.

Other veterans of GOP administrations said Obama could yet prove an agent of change -- on his own.

"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."

Obama adviser Anita Dunn made a similar case. "What you're seeing is the same kind of approach he took to his campaign -- some new people, some old people, like Goldilocks," she said. "What you see is someone who is not going to make some of the mistakes administrations have made in the past of not understanding how to get things done in Washington. People who say 'Where's the change?' need only look at the president of the United States . . . the person at the top who sets the tone and the priorities."

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