The wholesale absorption of Hillary Clinton’s best and brightest campaign advisers has begun.
In the weeks since Mrs. Clinton officially suspended her candidacy, the Obama campaign has recruited the services of the Clinton campaign’s director of national security, Lee Feinstein, as well as foreign-policy advisers Mara Rudman, the deputy national security advisor under Bill Clinton; Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary for nonproliferation at the State Department; and Stuart Eizenstat, an international-trade specialist who was policy director for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. On the domestic side, Gene Sperling, who was the top economic adviser on the Clinton campaign, has begun consulting with the Obama policy team.
The establishment of these working relationships follows formal announcements from the Obama campaign that they have hired former Clinton policy director Neera Tanden to report to their own policy director, Heather Higginbottom, along with Ms. Tanden’s own stable of wonks from the Clinton campaign, and that they have brought in Clinton adviser and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to work on national security issues.
“We’ve had a number of good and cordial and constructive conversations,” said Mr. Feinstein, who said he was supporting Obama as an outside foreign-policy adviser. “The senior foreign-policy advisers have reached out and Senator Clinton’s foreign-policy advisers are also doing everything they can to support Senator Obama.”
“You can throw all the policies into the Potomac if you don’t have the right theme,” said Mr. Eizenstat. “Having said that, if all you have is a theme, particularly heading into a general election, you have to build on that. It was already happening during the latter part of the primaries, but it accelerates dramatically in the general. There is a great demand to start filling out those positions.”
The post-primary recruitment of a rival campaign’s sharpest minds is nothing new, and it is a natural and necessary step toward achieving party unity in anticipation of the general election. A number of Mr. Obama’s advisers interviewed for this story suggested, not unreasonably, that the extra hands on deck have as much to do with body count as new expertise, enhancing their ability to meet the considerable, constant informational demands not only of the media but also of think tanks and good-government groups with questions about substantive issues.
And although there will inevitably be speculation about the role the former Clinton loyalists will eventually play in shaping Mr. Obama’s policies—Ms. Tanden, for example, might reasonably be expected to advocate for Mrs. Clinton’s more robust ideas about how to achieve universal health care—there is little in the way of ideological divisions between the two camps.
“What many of my friends who worked on the Clinton campaign have said is, “You know, there are parts of your plan I didn’t like,’” said David Cutler, a Harvard professor and a chief architect of Mr. Obama’s health care plan. “O.K., fine. But basically we all have the same goals—let’s figure out how to get there.”
But there are policy differences that endured through the primaries that some of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters hope can be addressed now from the inside. Some of Mrs. Clinton’s high-profile supporters in the health care industry, for example, have said publicly that they hope Ms. Tanden and her charges will eventually be able to steer the Obama position on universal health care, which does not mandate insurance, toward the Clinton position, which does.
Also, the migration of top Democratic policy brains to the Obama camp is particularly significant this year because they’re coming from the swollen ranks of Mrs. Clinton, who began the race as a heavy establishment favorite and had attracted the support of much of the country’s most experienced policy talent.
“They were strong in any number of areas,” Ms. Rudman, now an informal adviser to the Obama campaign, said diplomatically of her new home. “And I think they have also looked to further build their strengths. It’s deepening the benches.”
Some of the key Clinton aides moving over to Mr. Obama had prided themselves on their candidate’s specificity and thoroughness, and often criticized the Obama campaign for its relative lack of it.
Ms. Tanden, who served as a filter to Mrs. Clinton on all domestic policy matters, suggested as much on March 27 in a Clinton campaign statement that “presidents have to do more than announce principles. They have to solve problems. At a time of crisis in our financial markets, Senator Obama announced a series of broad, vague principles.”
Mr. Feinstein was a regular on Clinton conference calls that mocked Mr. Obama’s policies as “just words.”
To hear some of the former Clinton policy experts now, such criticism was so much run-of-the-mill campaign hyperbole.
Ms. Rudman, who did surrogate work and helped develop policy speeches and talking points for Mrs. Clinton, especially on subjects concerning the Middle East, said that the vagueness charge pushed by Mr. Obama’s critics was a flawed one, and that it would change as the press and country took a closer look at the policy work the campaign had already developed.
“He has actually done a fair amount of detailed policy work,” said Ms. Rudman. “I think maybe now is the time people will be listening to him.”
Still, the downside of Mr. Obama’s image as a gifted orator is the perception, fanned enthusiastically by Mrs. Clinton during the primary and now by John McCain, that the pleasant language is a substitute for a deep grasp of substance and detail. And the demands for detailed, fine-tuned ideas are only going to become harder to meet during the general election, which, unlike the primary, will feature two candidates with major substantive differences on domestic and foreign policy.
There is a recognition of this in the Obama campaign, perhaps best illustrated by the hiring of Ms. Tanden as director of domestic policy to help coordinate and synthesize the work of t
he economic, health care and energy policy teams, among others.
“It expands the scope,” said a senior Obama adviser. “If you bring Neera in, she is inevitably going to have another 10 or 15 people on the list that she has been dealing with on health insurance.”
Mr. Sperling, who worked closely with Ms. Tanden on the Clinton campaign, suggested that the Obama campaign’s aggressive outreach to Clinton advisers and experts at all levels was a reflection of confidence in their own personnel, who had, after all, worked for the winning side.
He heaped praise on the Obama campaign’s Ms. Higginbottom, whom he called “the unsung policy hero of the 2008 presidential campaign.”
And he stressed, above all, that the Obama campaign’s post-primary season cherry-picking was a good and natural thing. “The theme behind these hires,” he said, “is who are the most competent and skilled people.”