The most important revelation in the WikiLeaks dump of John Podesta’s emails has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. The messages go all the way back to 2008, when Podesta served as co-chair of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team. And a month before the election, the key staffing for that future administration was almost entirely in place, revealing that some of the most crucial decisions an administration can make occur well before a vote has been cast.
Michael Froman, who is now U.S. trade representative but at the time was an executive at Citigroup, wrote an email to Podesta on October 6, 2008, with the subject “Lists.” Froman used a Citigroup email address. He attached three documents: a list of women for top administration jobs, a list of non-white candidates, and a sample outline of 31 cabinet-level positions and who would fill them. “The lists will continue to grow,” Froman wrote to Podesta, “but these are the names to date that seem to be coming up as recommended by various sources for senior level jobs.”
The cabinet list ended up being almost entirely on the money. It correctly identified Eric Holder for the Justice Department, Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Robert Gates for Defense, Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff, Peter Orszag for the Office of Management and Budget, Arne Duncan for Education, Eric Shinseki for Veterans Affairs, Kathleen Sebelius for Health and Human Services, Melody Barnes for the Domestic Policy Council, and more. For the Treasury, three possibilities were on the list: Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Timothy Geithner.
This was October 6. The election was November 4. And yet Froman, an executive at Citigroup, which would ultimately become the recipient of the largest bailout from the federal government during the financial crisis, had mapped out virtually the entire Obama cabinet, a month before votes were counted. And according to the Froman/Podesta emails, lists were floating around even before that.
Many already suspected that Froman, a longtime Obama consigliere, did the key economic policy hiring while part of the transition team. We didn’t know he had so much influence that he could lock in key staff that early, without fanfare, while everyone was busy trying to get Obama elected. The WikiLeaks emails show even earlier planning; by September the transition was getting pre-clearance to assist nominees with financial disclosure forms.
We certainly want an incoming administration to be well-prepared and ready to go when power is transferred. For Obama, coming into office while the economy was melting down, this was particularly true. But the revelations also reinforce the need for critical scrutiny of Hillary Clinton, and for advocacy to ensure the next transition doesn’t go like the last, at least with respect to the same old Democrats scooping up all the positions of power well in advance.
Many liberal pundits have talked about the need to focus exclusively on Donald Trump, and the existential threat he presents, in the critical period before Election Day. And there is a logic to that idea: Trump would legitimately be a terrifying leader of the free world. But there are consequences to the kind of home-team political atmosphere that rejects any critical thought about your own side. If the 2008 Podesta emails are any indication, the next four years of public policy are being hashed out right now, behind closed doors. And if liberals want to have an impact on that process, waiting until after the election will be too late.
Who gets these cabinet-level and West Wing advisory jobs matters as much as policy papers or legislative initiatives. It will inform executive branch priorities and responses to crises. It will dictate the level of enforcement of existing laws. It will establish the point of view of an administration and the advice Hillary Clinton will receive. Its importance cannot be stressed enough, and the process has already begun.
The wing of the Democratic Party concerned about personnel decisions made its opinion known almost two years ago. Dan Geldon, now chief of staff to Senator Elizabeth Warren, met with Dan Schwerin, a top adviser to Clinton’s campaign, in January 2015. According to an email follow-up with Podesta and others, Geldon “was intently focused on personnel issues, laid out a detailed case against the Bob Rubin school of Democratic policy makers.” He was also “very critical of the Obama administration’s choices.”
The “Bob Rubin school” is named for the former top executive at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup and first Clinton administration Treasury secretary. It is composed precisely of the kinds of Democrats that the Warren wing opposes on domestic policy, particularly on financial matters. In the Obama administration, that school won out. Froman, chief of staff to Rubin at Treasury, gave options for Treasury secretary that ranged from Rubin himself to Summers and Geithner, two of his key protégés. In another 2008 email Rubin imagined for himself a “Harry Hopkins” position in the Obama administration, referring to Franklin Roosevelt’s top adviser.
The Rubin school dictated the Obama administration’s light-touch policy on bank misconduct (which resulted in no serious legal or fiduciary consequences for the major players) and its first-term approach to the financial crisis (which was defined by a stimulus package that even at the time was criticized for being woefully inadequate, as well as a premature turn to budget-cutting). These are exactly the flaws that Geldon, Warren’s emissary, stressed. According to Schwerin, he “spoke repeatedly about the need to have in place people with ambition and urgency who recognize how much the middle class is hurting and are willing to challenge the financial industry.”
Around the same time as that meeting with Geldon, the Clinton campaign was setting up a dinner meeting with its economic policy team, Geithner, Summers, and members of the investment firm Blackstone (along with Teresa Ghilarducci, a retirement security researcher).
This is a fight over who dominates the Democratic Party’s policy thinking in the short and long term. In 2008 the fight was invisible and one-sided, and the fix was in. In 2016 both sides are angling to get Clinton to adopt their framework. Those predisposed to consider Clinton some neoliberal sap might not agree, but this is actually a live ball. Presidents lead coalitions, and they have to understand where their coalition is and how things change over time. Peter Orszag this week suggested a trade-off: Give the Warren wing its choices on personnel, in exchange for more leeway to negotiate an infrastructure package with Republicans that gives big tax breaks to corporations with money stashed overseas. While that deal needs more detail, it reveals the power the Warren wing has, relative to the Obama era, to make significant strides on appointments.
Which side will win? The rank and file can actually have a voice in this, to make it known what personnel decisions would be acceptable or unacceptable. They can’t do it by ignoring evidence or sitting on their hands. The demand to only hold one thing in your head at a time—that Trump must be stopped—would squander this opportunity.