- By Laura RozenLaura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.
As Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton finishes final preparations for her Tuesday Senate confirmation hearing, some who early on devoted themselves to her rival’s candidacy find themselves watching from the sidelines with a mixture of admiration, frustration, and disquiet, sources tell The Cable. Every four years, of course, a similar phenomenon takes place, and campaign advisors seeking positions in government get left behind.
Now, some Obama campaign foreign policy volunteer advisors — many of whom put in long hours for no pay, taking career risks no doubt in part with the hope that should the long-shot junior Senator win, their hard work might eventually be rewarded — are finding themselves on the outside looking in, and not sure where they should knock.
In conversations over the past couple weeks, sources have told The Cable that something has definitely changed about their relationship to Obamaland since the campaign ended. The transition’s inner circle has become excessively secretive, closed, and far from transparent with them about the process for appointing people to jobs.
The irony, these people say, is that those who joined up with the Obama campaign early on — some at the risk of alienating their old bosses in the Clinton administration — now find that the Clintonistas have a patron who is taking better care of her people, as they see it, than Obama is of those who worked for him.
"It’s an unprecedented situation," said one such frustrated former Obama foreign policy advisor who asked to remain anonymous. "I know what goes on in the transition process. But what is happening here is unprecedented in terms of secrecy and lack of information."
"President-elect Obama came into the campaign with no foreign policy experience," he continued. "He asked a few people to pull together a group of foreign policy experts to give him both credibility as well as advice. A lot of people put their personal and professional reputations on line and took significant risks in opposing Clinton."
On Nov. 7, Obama foreign policy volunteers received a final e-mail from Susan Rice and Tony Lake, the coordinators of the outside foreign policy teams, thanking them for their help, encouraging them to apply for jobs to change.gov, and imploring them not to talk to the press.
"Since Nov. 7, there has been absolutely no communication from the leaders of the foreign policy team," he continued. "Many people they organized and mobilized on behalf of President-elect Obama. And we are completely in the dark about the process."
It’s not that everybody is going to get a job, he said he recognizes. But, in the view of some Obama volunteers, the transition is being needlessly secretive and closed with those who worked the longest and hardest for the candidate who won the White House. The lack of transparency "is so contrary to the values of the Obama campaign," he said. "People feel exploited."
"People feel certain groups have patrons," said another Obama campaign foreign policy advisor who asked to remain anonymous. "The Biden people have Biden, the Clinton people have Hillary. And then there’s Chicago," referring to Obama’s political operation. But the people who "staked their careers," by contributing their foreign policy expertise and loyalty to Obama early in the campaign aren’t finding they have such a patron, for the most part. Partly it was because they were kept at arms’ length from the Obama political operation during the campaign, she observed, and that the vast majority of their contact was indirect and coordinated by people who now aren’t returning calls.
"The point is, how did it happen," the second volunteer advisor continued, that those who signed up earliest with Obama as foreign policy advisors feel most shut out of the process now and without a patron in the current scramble for jobs?
"The problem is," she continued, "these people [the Obama political operation] don’t understand that government is different from forming coalitions during the campaign. When you run a campaign, you can say, ‘send e–mails, get on my blog,’ you can have a rally, in order to get votes. But [the government] is made up of interlocking directorates. People play hardball. They all take care of each other." And some Obama people feel there is nobody fighting for them to get in, after they fought for him.
A third advisor said the indirect way that foreign policy advice and talking points were funneled to Obama’s Chicago political operation means that very few actually had any face time with the president-elect’s inner circle. Rice and Lake, meantime, have gone off the radar, and are not returning phone calls and e–mails, several advisors said.
"It’s not just that it was all run through Susan and Tony, who couldn’t protect people, although that’s part of it," the third foreign policy advisor said. "It’s that it was all done by Internet, which was both a strength and weakness. No one knows each other by face."
Another surprise for those who spent months working actively for Obama, he added, is that the top advisors many of them assumed would get senior administration jobs — and have coattails to ride — for the most part didn’t. Only Rice, who has been tapped to be Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, has made it into the upper echelons. But "Susan is off to New York, with no coattails," the third advisor said.
A fourth Obama foreign policy volunteer said the anonymous grumbling from Obamaland about loyalty not being rewarded misses the big picture.
"Look, I think [Hillary Clinton] is loyal to a fault," he commented by e–mail. "She takes care of her own people, even when that is to her detriment, as was obvious during the campaign. Biden to a lesser extent, but there it is obvious that he would bring his own people from his Foreign Relations Committee staff into the government to advise him."
"As for Obama, as great as he is, loyalty is not his primary consideration in personnel selection," he continued. "He wants to pick the best and brightest, and he doesn’t particularly care whether or not you were there with him from the very beginning. How else do you explain the Jim Jones pick for NSC?"
"There is carping out there," he added. "I am one of them who feels it is unfair. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. So what if Obama pisses off some inside the Beltway wonks? We will all still be there for them in four years."
A transition spokesperson did not immediately respond to a query on the issue.
UPDATE: A transition official who did not wish to be quoted responded that such complaints were slightly baffling, seeing as no senior administration national security official had yet been confirmed, and adding that it could take a long time for the jobs to shake out. The official said that if these were people who thought they were going to be undersecretary, maybe they’re disappointed, but for mid- and lower-level jobs it could take weeks, even months. The source also said that the transition was not just filling agency slots with political appointees but was considering recommendations for some structural changes to some positions and bureaus. The transition knows who worked for the campaign, but that obviously wasn’t the only consideration, the official added.
TO: Obama Foreign Policy Experts
FROM: Tony Lake and Susan Rice
DATE: November 7, 2008
RE: Thank You
We want to thank you, and thank you again, for all that you have done to help elect Barack Obama President of the United States. Your wisdom and expertise have been invaluable. We will remain extremely grateful for your incredibly hard work and for your many personal and collective contributions.
We are obviously entering a new phase now with the transition. The transition will be a separate operation from the campaign, which is now disbanding. So too must our foreign policy expert teams disband.
The transition operation will be brief and comparatively lean. Given the need to complete this work expeditiously and efficiently, please understand that only a limited number of people will be able to support those activities. But, please also be assured that participation in the transition is in no way a prerequisite to, nor an assurance of, being offered any position in the Obama-Biden administration.
For those of you interested in applying for a position in the future administration, a transition website has been set up where you can (and, in fact, must) apply by filling out a form and submitting your resume. It is: www.change.gov. We hope very much that you will apply. You should follow the instructions to indicate your interest in being considered for a position in the government. This is a real website, which will be used to fill important positions in the government below the cabinet level. There will be no other channel through which applications will be accepted. Please also feel free to copy Mona Sutphen who will be tracking your applications at: [redacted], with any resumes and materials you submit in the official channel.
Finally, and importantly, we ask each of you please do not under any circumstances speak to the press, any foreign officials, or embassies on behalf of the transition or President-elect Obama. Please also do not encourage solicitation of such contacts. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of this request. It would be highly damaging for foreign governments or media to receive information that they believe falsely to represent the views of the President-Elect.
If you receive any inquiries, please refer them to:
[redacted] (for press inquiries)
[redacted] (for any inquiries from foreign officials and embassies)
Their new email accounts should be active by next week.
Thank you again for all that you have done to help make this historic moment possible.
Susan and Tony