Salena Zito

How much change is needed in order to be the change we can believe in?

President-elect Barack Obama has to govern and people with experience are the ones who can help him govern most effectively, which is why you see so many veterans of the Clinton White House packing up and heading back to Washington.

The question becomes, how much potion can you add to the water before it becomes tainted? Part of the reason Democrats voted for Obama over Hillary Clinton in the primaries is that they wanted a new sheriff in town, new posse included.

“Every four years I tell people that it is critical to wait until the entire White House staff and Cabinet are selected before passing premature judgments,” says Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia.

He points out that Washington is a maze of interest groups and treacherous traps and that presidents need experienced hands on board -- “Plus, he will have plenty of non-Clinton types in his inner circle.”

“Very few of the Clinton retreads are going to make the mistake of serving the old boss rather than the new boss,” Sabato says.

“Given the frosty relationship that exists between the Obamas and the Clintons, I don’t think many of these Clinton veterans will be saying to President Obama, ‘Well, this is how we did it in the Clinton administration’ or ‘This is what President Clinton would have done.’ ”

Joel Goldstein, a scholar of the presidency and a constitutional law professor at St. Louis University School of Law, says much of the change that Obama promised was from the last eight years, not from Clinton’s presidency.

Obama’s message was not that he wanted to blow up the system but to reform it, supposedly by minimizing special-interest influence and partisan bickering and by searching for common ground to get the people's business done.

“All of these initiatives suggest changes in the way in which Obama may approach governance,” Goldstein adds. “I suspect in many ways he will move more to the center on some issues at least -- at least the Democratic center -- than some of his supporters will like.”

To govern, you need some people who know how government works. Obama always has understood that; after all, he chose Joe Biden, hardly a government neophyte, as his vice president.

So no one should be surprised if he chooses some people who have Clinton administration service on their resumes. People such as John Podesta, Rahm Emanuel and Tom Daschle, who understand the executive branch and Congress and the White House, are invaluable if you are to avoid the sort of mistakes that plagued Presidents Carter and Clinton early on.

Goldstein reminds us that Obama is not our first "change" president and that his predecessors in change all blended old and new: “John F. Kennedy ran on generational change. Jimmy Carter promised change from an ‘imperial’ president. Ronald Reagan, change from a D.C.-centered government. And Bill Clinton, change from an ‘out-of-touch’ president.”

Every one of them embraced D.C. insiders except purist Carter, notes Matt Lebo, political scientist at Stony Brook University. “By the time President-elect Carter’s cronies from Georgia figured out how Washington worked, they had squandered whatever mandate he had,” Lebo says.

Goldstein suggests Edmund Muskie as a role model that may work for Obama.

“As a senator, he worked effectively with Republicans, even very conservative Republicans,” he explains. Muskie tried to mobilize large margins, for instance, on the environmental legislation of the early 1970s; he thought legislation supported by broad consensus was more likely to deliver the goods.

Change is relative. While some on the left cringe every time a Clintonista is tapped to become part of Obama’s inner circle, a collective sigh of relief can be heard inside the Washington Beltway, where people know government for the good (and for the bad) will go forward seamlessly.

If Obama wants to be effective, it is practical for him to change his rhetoric, his approach and his standards for what “change” means.

After all, people are looking for a sign that he is not an ideologue and not risky -- and that will be a good sign.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.