Obama's victory in the general election produced what his primary campaign couldn't: A swift merger of the Clinton Wing of the Democratic Party with the Illinois Senator's self-styled insurgency. The merger began, during the campaign, in the policy apparatus—which is now rapidly becoming the governing apparatus.
The absorption of the Clinton government in waiting represents Obama's choice not to repeat what he and his advisors see as an early mistake made by the last two presidents: Attempting to wield power in Washington through an insular campaign apparatus new to town.
Obama's first major appointments have been Democrats who worked for President Clinton and did not endorse him in the primary: Transition chief John Podesta and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who will be White House chief of staff, stayed neutral, and Ron Klain, who will be Joe Biden's chief of staff, backed Biden. Obama, advisors told Politico, may even be weighing offering Hillary Clinton herself the Cabinet plum of Secretary of State.
"Obama is showing great good sense in making use of their experience," said William Galston, a former Clinton domestic policy advisor who’s now at the Brookings Institution. "You have an entire cadre of people in their 30s and 40s and early 50s who were either in senior jobs or second- and third-tier jobs in the Clinton administration, who really earned their spurs and know their way around—and know something about how the institutions in which they served actually function."
Galston noted that while Clinton shunned the remnants of the Carter Administration in 1992, Obama's Democratic predecessor led a popular eight-year administration, and the party is no longer riven by deep ideological splits.
"The president-elect has the great good fortune of having a Democratic Party with a usable past," said Galston, who downplayed the differences between the Clinton and Obama camps during the primary. "It was never a substantive or an ideological split—it was more like Team A and Team B."
While only one pure Clintonite, former White House Chief of Staff Podesta, has been added to the Obama inner circle, the shift in Obama's universe is not to be understated. From the top down, his early choices reflect an openness, and even a warmth, to the veterans of 1990s governance. It’s a shift from a campaign that in the primary explicitly attacked President Clinton's tenure as a time of partisan strife and missed opportunities.
The single most important change in that respect is at the top, and the replacement of the slim, tightly-wound campaign chief of staff, David Plouffe, 41, with the slim, tightly-wound, Podesta, 59.
Plouffe was the guiding hand, operationally and often strategically, of Obama's campaign. He was also, insiders say, a sharply anti-Washington voice, key to the candidate's outsider message.
Plouffe came of political age inside the House Democratic leadership in the 1990s, and he was part of a core Obama group who never worked for Clinton, and harbored the sense of frustration and missed opportunity that prevailed on the Hill during Clinton's second term.
Plouffe remains a key advisor, and was spotted in the transition office Thursday, but with a new baby, credit for a historic victory, and plans to return to the private sector, he's no longer running the show.
Podesta, who heads the Center for American Progress, was Clinton's chief of staff from 1998 to 2001 and a key figure in his second term. As one Clinton loyalist noted with some satisfaction (if anonymously) on Thursday, Podesta’s role in the transition, and the new prominence of Clinton administration officials, suggests that Obama has aborbed one of Hillary Clinton's talking points: That it takes experience to make change happen.
Thirty-one of the 47 people so far named to transition or staff posts have ties to the Clinton administration, including all but one of the members of his 12-person Transition Advisory Board and both of his White House staff choices.
Most of those appointees weren't West Wing heavy-hitters, but lower-profile policy hands like former Deputy Secretary of Defense John White and former State Department official Wendy Sherman. They include former deputies to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Defense Secretary William Perry, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and some currently work at consultancies run by those Clinton administration principals.
Others are old Obama allies who also have Clinton ties, like Michael Froman, a transition advisor who was Obama's classmate at Harvard Law School and served as Robert Rubin's chief of staff at the Clinton Treasury Department, and Christopher Edley, who taught Obama at Harvard and also served Clinton, and is married to a former Clinton deputy chief of staff.
"This is a good way to try to be helpful without giving up my new life at Berkeley," said Edley, who is now dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, in an email.
The highest-ranking member of the group with deep ties to both Clinton and Obama is Emanuel, a Chicagoan who is very close to Obama and his chief strategist, David Axelrod.
Though the transition is still young, former Clintonites say they feel a change in the atmosphere.
"It's heartening to see that that was just primary rhetoric," said a former Clinton aide of Obama's criticism of Clinton's administration.
Obama has continued to keep his distance from aspects of Clinton's legacy, however, and even his decision to bring Clintonites into the transition and administration is in part a judgment of his Democrat predecessor’s chaotic, insular transition 16 years ago.
And there remains a distinction between the policy and political sides of Hillary Clinton’s operation. Soon after the primary, top Clinton policy aides, like economic advisor Gene Sperling, were quietly integrated into Obama's campaign. The only member of Clinton's inner circle to join Obama's campaign staff, Neera Tanden, was her policy director.
A campaign's policy shop feeds the bulk of a new administration's appointments: Most of the key positions on White House staff and in executive agencies are policy posts.
But while the Clinton policy shop may feel like the gang is getting back together, the political team has yet to be invited in.
Said one former Clinton campaign aide, "Obama has clearly made a distinction between the small group of Clinton campaign staff, who clearly aren't much welcome, and the large number of Clinton White House personnel who are."