The Gap Between Obama’s Promise, Washington’s Ways

I went to a party last Sunday night given by a friend, a well-known journalist, who is well connected in Washington and friends with various movers and shakers, particularly in the legal world. The conversation, after the expression of shock about the loss of Tim Russert, turned to Jim Johnson, the "consummate Washington insider," as the papers called him, who had been ousted as Barack Obama's veep vetter. The people I talked with seem to think Obama had been unwise to hire someone who had profited so mightily from his Washington contacts. Still, the general assumption seemed to be, of course, any new president will need to hire people who know the town, who are "wired" and get around.

Someone in my little group did try to wonder what it would be like if a president only hired outsiders, but he was quickly drowned out. Jimmy Carter had tried to go around the usual powers-that-be with his Georgians; to a lesser degree, Bill Clinton had tried that with his Arkansans, and before long his team was forced to bring in Lloyd Cutler, the late super lawyer and Washington wise man who seemed to enjoy rescuing rookie presidents from their neophyte mistakes. Besides, someone in the group asked, would it really be an improvement if Obama brought in a bunch of political fixers from Chicago?

There was a certain amount of worry that the Washington establishment was about to embark upon one of its periodic acts of cannibalism and start questioning the client relationships or legal involvements of other Washington insiders close to Obama—notably Eric Holder, another veep vetter who, as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, took part in the Marc Rich pardon. One of the lawyers at the party noted that few big-time lawyers could (or would wish to) withstand such guilt-by-association scrutiny. We all agreed it would be unfortunate if, say, Greg Craig was disqualified from taking a top job with Obama (whom Craig advises on foreign policy) because he has, necessarily, represented some shady types over the years as a white-collar defense lawyer at the law firm of Williams and Connolly.

I joined this chorus. I know Craig to be a decent, smart and public-spirited person. I have no doubt that if Obama is elected, the country would benefit from having Craig, or savvy high-powered Washington lawyers like him, in top White House jobs.

And yet....Two nights later, I was standing on the floor of Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, deafened by the roar for Obama, who was giving one of his rousing speeches for change. I wondered what the 20,000 or so people in the crowd, most of them African Americans, would have thought of the conversation I had participated in two nights before in the living room of my well-connected friend. The fact is that Washington is largely dominated by people, some of them very smart, who get well paid to represent the status quo and fairly narrow interests.

These people are not by any means wicked or unjust or venal—some of the guests at the party had performed significant public service in one way or another. Many of them were Democrats who will vote for Obama. But I am sure that if you took a poll and asked them whether Obama could really change Washington—could really close loopholes on energy companies and raise taxes on the rich, reform the health-care system and significantly scale back the ill effects of global warming, substantially improve public schools or get us out of Iraq anytime soon—the answer would have been no, probably not. These "realists" might even want such changes, or most of them. But they know how Washington works. They might argue that Obama will need insiders if he really wants to change Washington (think of FDR hiring stock speculator Joseph Kennedy to be the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission). But at the same time they have a strong appreciation for congressional gridlock and the countervailing powers of influence peddlers. They know that money—perfectly legal money—can trump idealistic campaign promises in a city thick with more than 30,000 lobbyists.

I agree with them; I am part of that Washington world as a journalist and I have low expectations that any politician, no matter how gifted, can change it in a significant way.  At the same time, standing in the press gallery on the floor of that arena in Detroit, I was moved by Obama's ability to rouse and give hope to so many people who really seem to believe he can achieve the change he talks about. There is a disconnect here, and I don't see what's going to change it. Obama is a shrewd and realistic person, as far as I can tell. I wonder what he really thinks.

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