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The Clinton Presidency Is Already Taking Shape. Will the Left Have a Voice?

The transition process is shrouded in secrecy. And progressives are having bad Obama flashbacks.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are actually three West Wings right now on Pennsylvania Avenue: one at the White House, and two in an office building a block away, where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns are already planning the transition to the next administration.

More than rhetoric on the campaign trail, or what’s in a party platform, the transition teams will determine the trajectory of a Trump or Clinton presidency. The one that represents the winner in November will end up hiring close to 4,000 senior staff—the people who will manage the federal government for the next four years. And as Elizabeth Warren has been saying throughout the campaign, personnel is policy.

Consider the last transition of power in Washington, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. At a time of financial crisis and punishing recession, Obama appointed a transition team that included Michael Froman, who at the time was working at Citigroup, the top recipient of Wall Street bailout funds.

While officially an unpaid adviser, Froman was reportedly put in charge of economic team personnel, with recommendations for key offices running through him. Froman gave Obama two top choices for Treasury Secretary: Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. We ended up with a Geithner/Summers economic worldview in Obama’s first term because of Froman’s winnowing of the list of options. (Froman himself went on to become Obama’s trade representative: We also have him to thank for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.)

The idea of a similar scenario is keeping some progressives up at night: After a primary in which Clinton lurched to the left, and the left won historic gains in the party platform, will insiders use the transition to stock her administration with a stale collection of expats from the corporate wing of the party? “What’s still an open question,” says Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, “is whether Secretary Clinton’s cabinet and senior executive team is going to be packed with individuals who’ve spent their careers steeped in the same old, failed center-left neoliberal economic worldview that got us into the mess of extreme income inequality we’re plagued with today.”

A transition is the ultimate insider’s game, without set rules or requirements for transparency. Whether progressives can influence the process remains largely up to what Clinton wants her presidency to look like. As Kurt Walters, campaign director for Demand Progress, puts it, “The time is now for Secretary Clinton to be bold and clear about filling her administration with personnel ready to challenge the powerful interests working to rig the political system.”

Amid all the campaign rallies and debates and get-out-the-vote operations, it’s far too easy to forget about the transition—and most on the left are paying scant attention to Clinton’s process. But when we choose a president to govern, we’re giving them the power to choose thousands of other individuals tasked with carrying that governance out. Who’s in the room when critical decisions are made can define a presidency. “Politics at this level, insider politics, is very much a relational game,” says Mike Lux, a veteran of two transitions, under Bill Clinton in 1992 and Obama in 2008. “Unlike a four-year term where you’re able to worm your way in, this is such a fast process. People are not spending time talking to people they don’t know really well.”

That’s why progressives are anxious to know they’ll have a prominent seat at the transition table. No two transitions are alike, and little is known about Clinton’s plans so far. But the end result is always the same: Each nominee’s transition team creates almost a federal government in miniature. Every component of the executive branch has a corresponding agency review team, going over its operations in depth and identifying personnel needs. The agency review teams report to senior campaign staff, recommending how to manage those agencies and who to run them. In 2008, Obama also created a 12-person advisory board, which made direct recommendations to senior staff and the president-elect. Michael Froman was one of those advisers; that’s why he didn’t have to quit his day job at Citigroup.

“If you have influence, through the advisory board you can say, ‘I want this person considered for Treasury, or this person for Commerce,’” says Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. But it’s not just the secretaries of State or Defense being decided; obscure assistant secretaries can drive policy outcomes by their actions as much as senior-level officials. And that’s true of the transition as well. “Every single person in the transition team is involved in personnel,” says Lux. “My experience is that the transition team was absolutely essential.”

Clinton’s transition began earlier than Obama’s, thanks in part to a 2010 law called the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act, which delivers federal funds, office space, and logistical support to major-party nominees. Clinton and Trump have both managed active, self-funded transition operations since April, but federal dollars are only released after the conventions; you can say that this is the first week of the next administration.

However, Clinton has yet to formally name her transition chair. Trump is ahead of her on that front, designating New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as the transition chief—a terrifying thought, considering Christie’s demonstrated penchant for rewarding political friends and punishing enemies.

The best clue about Clinton’s plans came from a report last month in The New York Times, citing four people overseeing her transition planning: campaign chairman John Podesta and three aides—Ann O’Leary, Ed Meier, and Sara Latham —working under him. CNN wrote last week that when White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough reached out to the Clinton campaign to begin preparations on the transition, he spoke with Meier.

These names don’t send a clear signal about Clinton’s intentions. Podesta is part of the first family of Democratic lobbying, but he has allies across the Democratic ideological spectrum, and was generally seen by progressives as a positive force inside the Obama administration as an adviser, particularly in pushing for a strong environmental agenda. Little is known about Meier, a Clinton adviser at State and the Director of Policy Outreach for the campaign. There’s a bit more reason to get jittery about Latham, Podesta’s chief of staff and the former chairman of iEnergizer, a company that facilitated the outsourcing of call-center service jobs from the U.S. to India.

But the bigger problem is the lack of clarity into everyone’s role in the transition—or who “everyone” will be, even. That makes it hard for progressives to have an impact on the process, or to check any undue corporate influence. “Progressives want to see Clinton announce a transition team led by individuals with a proven progressive track record, not lobbyists or veterans of the revolving door,” says Kurt Walters. “With public resources now supporting both campaigns’ transition efforts, there is no reason to shroud this process in secrecy.”

But there’s nothing stopping the Clinton campaign from doing just that. There are no formal prohibitions on corporate lobbyists involving themselves with the transition. (Obama adhered to some loose guidelines; it’s unclear whether Clinton will revive them.) Agency reviews and internal deliberations are never made public. This process to stand up a future presidency happens with almost no scrutiny; that makes it easier for the same old bad practices to pervade. Which is exactly what progressives already fear will happen in a Clinton administration.

Democracy for America’s Charles Chamberlain describes the choice of transition staff as “just as important a pick as the choice for vice president.” He added that “Secretary Clinton won the nomination by emphasizing her commitment to the social, racial, environmental, and economic justice issues that progressives care so deeply about, and her pick to head the transition team is one of her first major general-election chances to prove she means it.”

As a display of this commitment, progressives want to see one of their own onto the advisory board. “The best way into the process is making sure committed progressives are deeply involved,” Jeff Hauser says. “That way their staff is seeing all the emails, and can veto stuff before it gets out of hand.” He thinks progressive early Clinton supporters like senators Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin would be strong choices who would reassure the left.

Clinton has said that she wants a diverse executive branch, with women holding at least half of the cabinet positions. But will there be a diversity of perspectives, pulling talent from public service, academia and interest-group advocacy as well as the private sector? That question begins to be answered with the transition, where Clinton can dispel doubts about her commitment to challenging corporate power. Or not.