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Clintonism Without Clinton -- It's Deja Vu All Over Again

If Obama wins, he will feel immense pressure to be fiscally responsible, tackle the deficit and put universal health care and economic regulation on hold. Just like Bill Clinton.
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In the dog days of summer, I and my dogs take comfort in the wisdom of Yogi Berra. As that great Yankee catcher and philosopher said, "It's deja vu all over again." That's just how I feel seeing the photos and reading the reports of Barack Obama's economic gathering this week. It's as if I am rerunning a movie of the 1992 Clinton economic summit in Litlte Rock. There are Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Bob Reich, Laura Tyson, corporate statemen like Warren Buffet, Republicans like Paul Volker and Paul O'Neill, a couple of token labor leaders and few if any progressive economists or activists huddling with our Democratic candidate to discuss economic hard times. And in the White House we have another President Bush who is passing along a record deficit. "White House Predicts Bush will Leave $482 Billion Deficit" reads the NY Times headline. Even if Obama wins, he will feel immense pressure to be fiscally responsible, tackle the deficit and put universal health care, economic regulation or labor law reform on hold or postpone it altogether. Just like Bill Clinton.

It feels like Clintonism Without Clinton.

Reading the profile of Obama's political rise in Chicago, I found myself saying to friends that it reminds me a lot of Bill Clinton's career, although in an urban context.

Other political observers are also saying how much Barack Obama reminds them of Bill Clinton. Both are smart, articulate, give good speeches, and display political ability mixed with ambition and pragmatism. Maybe Barack is channeling Bill, and he doesn't need to talk to him (as I advised in a previous column). And maybe it's just plain weird (an unfair) that Hillary Clinton was defeated by a younger version of her own husband.

It just doesn't matter, as Bill Murray chanted. Obama is the Democratic candidate and I want him to win -- but let's also talk about what to do after victory is won. Remember the Robert Redford character in The Candidate who wins his Senate race, asking forlornly, "What do I do now.?' There are answers.

I have expressed myself already that to win the election Obama needs to sharpen his economic message and deepen his economic agenda, and there is no need to repeat the obvious. However, I strongly advise that progressive groups should be planning for victory, as well as working hard to elect Obama. It is often during Transition periods between administrations -- in late November and during December -- that key decisions are made about personnel and policy, usually out of the view of the media and after public interest in the campaign has greatly diminished. This was certainly the case in Clinton's first term, and even in Bush's when he decided to bring in Don Rumsfeld to counter the influence of the more centrist Colin Powell.

I ran the Labor section of the Transition for the first Clinton term and saw first hand how unprepared the labor movement was for winning and then governing. They had no serious candidates for key positions in a Democratic administration -- even for Labor Secretary (and they got someone who didn't believe strongly in labor unions!) -- and no forward looking agenda for economic reform. Other progressive and public interest groups were just as bad. Ralph Nader had all but endorsed kooky Jerry Brown in the primary and spent most of his time personally attacking Bill and Hillary Clinton. He then behaved badly in his meetings with new White House staff, and gave no thought to lobbying for the appointment of progressives in the administration. As a result, the influence of the labor movement and progressive groups both on the inside and the outside of the Clinton administration was marginal at best. There is a lesson here for the major labor unions like SEIU and AFSCME that are going to go all out with their members and their treasuries to elect Barack Obama, and for groups such as Public Citizen, Moveon.Org and others, especially environmental organizations.

Yes, by all means, do everything you can to elect Obama and a Democratic Congress -- but devote some staff time and strategic thinking to planning for after the victory. Personnel determines policy more than campaign speeches and position papers,so have a list ready on November 5 of qualified individuals who might be considered seriously for top positions in government and for whom you will lobby the Obama administration to appoint. For example, at least one economist on the Council of Economic Advisors should be a labor economist; progressive economists should be appointed not only to the Labor Dept, but more importantly, to the Treasury Dept and to the Office of the US Trade Representative; pro-consumer and labor experts should be appointed to leadership positions on all regulatory bodies. And have a reform agenda of executive decisions and priority legislation in hand. Line up sponsors and advocates in the Senate and House, and start pushing the agenda with the White House the day after the Inauguration. To neglect these tasks and fail to think strategically about winning makes all the hard work in the fall to win the election only feel hollow later.

After all, as the candidate himself said, "We are the ones we have been waiting for." Not the one, but the ones.

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