You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama's Team Was Never Unique in 'This Town'

Some of the commentary about Mark Leibovich’s new book, This Town, concerns the degree to which Team Obama has replicated the less-worthy habits of previous administrations: discarding high ethical standards, leaving public service for lobbying, etc. My colleague Alec MacGillis has a smart post on the subject, quoting a Dana Milbank column which argues that the Obama folks sold out. Here’s Alec’s response:

I'm all for naming names when it comes to people cashing in—my colleague Noam Scheiber did a nifty job of this just a few months ago with ex-Obama administration honchos. But I'd also argue that it’s a wee bit rich for the Beltway scorekeepers to be chiding the Obama-ites for adopting the local norms when over these past few years the Obama crew has also been widely ridiculed for holding themselves above them. Back in 2008 and 2009, the Obama team was being tagged as naive and “holier-than-thou,” as Milbank himself put it in 2008, for claiming they were going to bring to town a “new politics” that was less concerned with back-slapping and news-cycle gamesmanship. The purest statements of the establishment's disdain for the Obama-ites have been doyenne Sally Quinn's laments that they were failing to come to her parties. But there've been countless variations on this theme all the way up through this year, that Obama and his acolytes are too aloof, too stuck on their own way of doing things.

Alec is right that there is a certain amount of hypocrisy among the establishmentarians that Leibovich’s book is about: they mock Obama for being above the fray, and then tear him down for ceasing to be above the fray. But the critique of the Obamaites from Washingtonians has always had several dimensions, and some of them seem fair to me.

Obviously, as Alec points out, it’s absurd for Sally Quinn to complain about people failing to come to parties, and many of the critiques of Obama’s “aloofness” are ridiculous, and motivated by resentment that Obama didn't make himself more available to the Quinns of the world. Nor is there anything wrong with Team Obama wanting to do things its own way.

But the critique of the holier-than-thou-ness seems entirely warranted, given that, as Alec concedes, they weren't all that holy. It’s true that some of these complaints might be a result ofy the same resentment that Alec mentions in regards to Quinn, but they turned out to be correct. Alec broaches this point near the end of his post:

Are they prigs holding themselves above This Town or sellouts who’ve gone native? I suppose one could argue that they are both—that there is a difference between declining to hobnob in the ways the capital expects, which they have purportedly failed to do, and declining to cash in personally, which some of them have been more than happy to do. Still, there should be at least some recognition of the apparent inconsistency in the lines of anti-Obama-ite scorn.

There is a huge difference between declining to go to parties and declining to cash in, but the real question is whether the same people are really complaining about both things. I would guess Quinn is not all that bothered about David Plouffe's lobbying work.

In his last graf, Alec raises another interesting question:

As it is, simply hitting the Obama crew for hypocrisy leaves us in the awfully jaded and cynical position of assuming that their state desire to do things differently was doomed from the start, that there is something inexorable about the corrupting influence of the place. And I’m not sure we really want to accept that, because that effectively removes personal responsibility from the equation. If the mere fact of coming to This Town is enough to undermine one’s morals, then can one even hold people accountable when they do take the fall? I’d rather continue to believe in some level of agency, so that we can judge the choices of a Plouffe against those of, say, a Steve Hildebrand, another Obama strategist who, instead of calling up Barnett and Boeing, decided to open up a coffee shop in his native South Dakota. Then again, that is very far from This Town.

I don't think the point that Alec is responding to is about free will and Team Obama. Everyone who comes to Washington decides what they want to do, and how they want to do it. The point (I think) is that the type of people who come to Washington to pursue political power are the type of people who generally go on to, say, lobby. What was new about the way the Obamaites sold themselves was that they tried to seem as if they were different types. Which, of course, they aren't. It doesn't mean they don't have agency. Rather, it means that the Obama "insurgency" in 2007 and 2008 was led by the same people that populate most campaigns. That's not the worst thing in the world, but is is worth noting.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.