Columns » John Brummett

Are we getting fooled again?

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Some people have started quoting The Who when speaking of President-elect Barack Obama.

They invoke a lyric, a last-stanza lament, from the rock anthem entitled “Won't Get Fooled Again.” It's the one that goes like this: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

It's true that the new boss told us he'd change things. Yes, we can, he said. But now some are beginning to sense that, no, he won't.

Yes, Obama is preparing to become the new boss by surrounding himself with Clinton administration retreads and maybe even George W. Bush's defense secretary. But prematurely despairing people ought to put the cynicism on hold. Real change is about attitude, tenor and results, not personnel.

Our attitude has been bad. Our tenor has been harsh and shrill. Our results have been nonexistent.

Real change can come only from the man at the top. So the question becomes how the man at the top deploys these familiar faces. Is it for business as usual or for business done differently? To put it simply, it's about success or failure. Success would be welcomed change, for sure.

Would you like change in attitude and tenor? How, then, about Obama's signaling to the Democratic senatorial leadership that we need newly pragmatic bipartisanship if we can ever hope to get anything constructive accomplished?

He asked of them: Why don't you folks eschew the partisan payback game and cut old Joe Lieberman some slack for betraying us like that? Let's make this about inclusive, expansive leadership, about largeness, not score-settling.

How about taking your bitter rival for your party's nomination and making her the very face of your administration to the world as secretary of state? That's not so much original change as a resurrection of, and homage to, tactical and strategic change undertaken by Abraham Lincoln when he put political opponents into his cabinet. And that's no bad model.

If the change we want is about outcome, consider that one might stand a better chance of achieving his reform agenda if he was assisted by persons with experience and expertise.

Actually, a former Clinton White House aide was telling me that experience in a presidential administration from eight years before, as with the Bill Clinton administration, is ideal. If it's from 12 years before, too many things will have changed and too much know-how will have been lost. If it's four years, you'll be inclined to do everything precisely as you did it before. But eight years — that's just right, he said. You still know how to do the job. Better yet, you remember how not to do it.

So the issue is not that Rahm Emanuel, the new presidential chief of staff, is an old Clinton administration operative and recent partisan Democratic congressional leader. The issue is where the country will wind up in two or three years on the economy, health care and energy independence. It's whether Emanuel will have helped the new president get the country there.

The issue is not that the new president might retain Robert Gates as defense secretary. The issue is where we will be, or won't be, in Iraq and Afghanistan by late 2010. It's whether Gates will have helped the new president get us to a better place.

To argue that the new president needs to cloak himself in inexperience is simply naive and silly.

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