The Band Plays On

by Editorial

Barack Obama’s melody is new, but Washington’s orchestra of insiders remains the same – Roland Flamini reports on who is trying to
play sweet music to the President-Elect

By Roland Flamini

Illustration by J.C. Suares

Illustration by J.C. Suarès

On January 20, President George W. Bush rides into the setting sun, a new sheriff takes over at the White House, and the four-year process that defines democracy in this country starts anew. The “commentariat” – as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown calls them – has told the world endlessly on television, throughout blogdom, and in the mainstream press why this time it’s different. And so it is: but it might be worth noting that in Washington, some things have remained the same.

The traditional power minuet to staff the presidency and the new administration involves, as usual, the Hill, think tanks, universities, and the big law firms. Besides military appointments, the president has legal appointing authority for thousands of jobs, and every chief executive invariably vows to choose the best and the brightest. In reality, filling the jobs gives the new president an opportunity to reward support, and ensure loyalty.

Shortly after the election, the New York Times (and other newspapers for that matter) started running profiles of possible administration appointees being considered by the Obama Transition Team, or hoping to be. Few, if any, lacked previous government, or government-related experience. “Recruiting a new administration causes a significant manpower shift in Washington,” says one Washington observer. “If the party in power remains the same it becomes a matter of musical chairs. The posts vacated by people going to the White House and other branches of the government have to be filled. But when the party in power changes there is no revolving door for those leaving the administration, and the departure can be quite painful.”

In another familiar ritual President-elect Obama has been bombarded with proposals, reports, and studies on policy issues from a whole artillery of specialists, interest groups, and academics. The aim is to try and capture his attention on everything from health to foreign policy before a decision making mechanism locks into place at the White House, and outside input becomes more difficult.

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