Do Old Clinton Hands Mean A 'Retro' Obama Second-Term?

As my colleagues in the White House Press Corps and I crowded into the East Room yesterday to await the President’s announcement of a new chief of staff, we were counting the number of Cabinet Members who had come for the event.

Conspicuously absent was Hillary Clinton.  It would have been poignant for the secretary of state to have been there when the current Democratic President tapped the latest member of “Team Obama” who had previously served the last Democratic President, her husband.

Obama, of course, named as his new chief of staff his “friend and fellow Chicagoan” William Daley, son and brother of two Chicago mayors and secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton.

Daley’s selection came on the heels of the appointment of Gene Sperling, who headed the National Economic Council under President Clinton, as top economic advisor to President Obama.  

The choice of two old Clinton hands for two very important spots in the Obama White House raises an obvious question:  will the Obama Administration make a sudden shift in its agenda from left to center, very much as the Clinton Administration did after its own “shellacking” in the 1994 midterm elections?

It’s a bit remote today, but from the day he took office in January of 1993 until the elections that gave Republicans control of Congress the following year, Bill Clinton tried to govern from the left.  His agenda included a government takeover of health care, gays in the military (they both died in Congress) and the largest tax increase in history (it passed).  

“We’ll try to get [Clinton] back to where he was,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-CT) told me in the summer of ’93, referring to the days when the 42nd President was head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.  

In effect, the ’94 elections did that. Clinton governed with a Republican Congress for the rest of his tenure as President.  For the most part, he governed as a centrist.  Among other things, he signed Republican-passed budgets, cut the capital gains tax,  and left office with an historic surplus instead of a deficit.  

Newly-minted Obama economic advisor Sperling played a part in much crafting much of the post-’94 “Clintonomics.”  But if there is anyone in the Obama orbit who can steer the ship of state to the middle—and deal with John Boehner and Republicans on Capitol Hill—it is inarguably Bill Daley.  

“He’s led major corporations,” Obama told us in introducing Daley, an obvious slap at the liberal bloggers who had sniped all day at the Chicagoan’s background as top executive of SBC and now JP Morgan. “He possesses a deep understanding of how jobs are created and how to grow our economy.  And needless to say, Bill also has a smidgen of awareness of how our system of government and politics works.  You might say it is a genetic trait.[a funny and very obvious reference to the Daley family tree].”

Put another way, Barack Obama has named the most politically savvy Democratic chief of staff in the White House since Leon Panetta and the most business-friendly chief of staff since Erskine Bowles.  And both of them worked for (you guessed it!) Bill Clinton.  

The Democratic left in and out of Congress who once idolized Obama are not taking kindly to his choice of a top aide.  Charging that Daley is urging “the Democratic Party to pursue a corporate agenda that alienates both Independent and Democratic voters,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s Adam Green warned that if Obama listens to his fellow Chicagoan, “Democrats will suffer a disastrous 2012.”  

Obama sees it differently.  He’s keeping acting Chief of Staff Tom Rouse as counselor and outgoing Press Secretary Robert Gibbs will be available for advice.  So a number of those who were with him before he was President will still be there to presumably give the same advice.

But in reaching out to those who helped Bill Clinton rebound comeback after his “shellacking” sixteen years ago, the President gives evidence he will at least listen to other voices for the rest of his term.