POLITICS AUGUST 13, 2008
Earlier this summer, when the Obama campaign announced that Jason Furman was joining its staff as director of economic policy, the storyline seemed to write itself: Centrist adviser will pull Obama to the right. Furman had first made a name for himself as a wonky twentysomething wunderkind in the later years of the Clinton administration--a period when, to the consternation of many liberals, Clinton emphasized balanced budgets, free trade, and welfare reform. One of Furman's best-known champions is the senior Clinton adviser most closely identified with that period: investment banker and former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin. And, if there is one research paper for which Furman, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, is best known, it's probably the paper he wrote a few years ago suggesting that Wal-Mart--a bete noire of liberals--might actually be good for working people. "We are very much taken aback that Furman has been put at the head of this team," one national labor leader groused to the Los Angeles Times.
But other elements of Furman's record belied such fears. He's spent the last few years focusing heavily on health care reform, an issue generally of greater concern to the left, going so far as to develop his own innovative proposal to give everybody insurance while scaling out-of-pocket expenses to income--an idea that's arguably more progressive than many mainstream proposals. Even before then, Furman had developed a reputation as an honest broker--somebody held in high regard by economists across the Democratic Party's ideological spectrum. "My own views, such as they are, are irrelevant," Furman said to The New York Times when joining the campaign. While that may have overstated things a bit, Obama's aides made a similar vow: Furman was there to advance the candidate's vision, they insisted, not his own.
And that's how things seem to be working out. One of Furman's first tasks was to turn ad hoc phone calls among outside economic advisers into a regular, weekly ritual. Those calls sometimes include two of Rubin's longtime allies from the Clinton administration, policy maven Gene Sperling and Berkeley economist Laura Tyson. But they also include Robert Reich, Clinton's former Labor secretary, who was Rubin's chief sparring partner within the administration; and Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank known for attacking centrist economic orthodoxy from the left. The influence these advisers have over actual policy decisions is limited: Although they debate issues among themselves and send ideas up the chain of command, their primary job is to take the campaign's message to the public as surrogates. But it's still a more institutionalized role than populists like Bernstein and Reich have had in recent campaigns: "I think it's fair to say this candidate and this policy process is more inclusive," Reich told me. "There's a systematic outreach to a variety of perspectives."
But, if Furman's arrival in Obamaland wasn't a harbinger of ideological change, it may have signaled another shift that's been underway ever since the primaries ended. At every level, from the candidate himself down through his field-level organizers, the hallmark of the Obama campaign has been the prominent role for people who, at least in the cloistered world of Democratic presidential campaigns, count as "outsiders." And this quality has, in most respects, been a source of strength. But it's also exposed some weaknesses: among them, an occasional failure to find the magical sweet spot where good politics meets good policy. Locating that sweet spot is considered Furman's expertise; it's a talent he's honed working for the last two Democratic presidential nominees. It also makes Furman emblematic of a whole new wave of Obama staff recruits, many of whom boast similar resumes heavy in wonkery and time logged with past presidential campaigns--not least among them, the campaign of Obama's recently vanquished rival, Hillary Clinton.
The official explanation for hiring Furman and the others is that the campaign is simply bulking up on staff to deal with the increased intensity of the general election, something all campaigns do at this stage. And that's almost surely correct. But there is little doubt that the addition of people like former Clinton policy director Neera Tanden, who now works alongside Furman and handles non-economic domestic policy, or veteran opposition researcher Dan Carroll, who has joined the communications staff, is changing the Obama campaign's DNA.
Two years ago, once Obama decided to run for president, finding an experienced staff to run his campaign wasn't so easy. Clinton had locked up the most seasoned operatives, leaving her rivals to rely on their own, smaller networks. John Edwards, for example, recruited heavily from his 2004 campaign staff. But Obama had no comparable circle of policy advisers on which to draw. During his brief Senate career, he'd leaned on Karen Kornbluh, an accomplished writer on social welfare issues, to develop his policy ideas. She ran what amounted to an ongoing intellectual salon out of his Senate office, an effort that produced a series of major speeches and, eventually, the core ideas in Obama's The Audacity of Hope, which outlined his policy agenda in embryonic form. But it was one thing to preach about these ideas as an extremely junior senator in the minority party; it was quite another to flesh them out and defend them as a presidential candidate with a real shot at the White House. And Kornbluh, citing the strain a presidential campaign puts on one's family, did not follow Obama to Chicago.
Instead, Obama ended up turning to Austan Goolsbee and Heather Higginbottom. Goolsbee is a center-left University of Chicago economist with a contrarian mentality known, among other things, for his innovative use of data. While he had done the policy work for Obama's Senate run in 2004, the two didn't have the decades-long relationship that, say, Bob Reich had had with Bill Clinton. Higginbottom was a more conventional choice for adviser; she'd worked in the policy shop of John Kerry's 2004 campaign, where her combination of smarts and political instincts made her a highly valued, if unheralded, adviser. But she was even more of a stranger to Obama--available for hire, in part, because she'd been waiting to see if Kerry would run again.
Higginbottom would take the policy department's helm, reporting directly to chief strategist David Axelrod. Goolsbee, who kept his faculty position at the University of Chicago, would become the campaign's most influential economics adviser. Around them, the campaign assembled a supporting cast of others from beyond the Clintons' primary orbit. Among them were two highly regarded, left- of-center Harvard economists known for pushing the boundaries of debate: David Cutler, whose recent research has suggested that expensive medical technologies yield more benefits than some critics acknowledge, and Jeff Liebman, a tax policy and inequality expert who once made a cautious and nuanced case for integrating private accounts into Social Security. Also unconventional was the choice of Jason Kamras to advise Obama on educational policy: His expertise came not from government but from the classroom; in 2005, he'd been named national teacher of the year.
Necessity was not the only impetus for this eclectic staff: Higginbottom says she was carrying out a mandate from Obama himself to present him with intellectually diverse views. And that undoubtedly served the campaign well in many instances. "They made a few out-of-the-box decisions, like on [opposing Clinton's gas tax holiday], that worked very well for them," says one veteran operative with ties to the Obama campaign. "I wonder if they would have made some of those more interesting decisions if they had as many experts at mixing the policy and the politics." Another happy by-product of this process was the construction of a campaign relatively devoid of ego and turf-consciousness-- which helps explain why, relative to the infamously fractious Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns, this one has been conspicuously bereft of infighting. Many insiders credit Higginbottom, who, despite her influence, keeps a low profile, with fostering this environment.
But, with a few exceptions like Higginbottom, it was still a policy staff relatively thin on actual campaign experience. And that showed in May 2007, when--in their first major policy presentation, just months after coming together as a team--they rolled out Obama's health care plan. With key decisions about the plan unresolved until the last minute, they had little time to adequately brief either reporters or surrogates; even days after the announcement, campaign spokesmen sent out confusing, sometimes conflicting, signals about what the plan actually said. This contrasted sharply with the seamlessly orchestrated unveilings that the Edwards campaign had conducted months before and that the Clinton campaign would conduct months later. Subsequent policy rollouts went more smoothly. But the policy team had another, far more visible goof when the press reported that Goolsbee had assured Canadian officials that Obama's rhetoric about redrawing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was just political posturing. Although Goolsbee says his words were misinterpreted, campaign officials acknowledged that it was the kind of situation a more seasoned operative would have avoided. Goolsbee, who'd become increasingly visible in the media, slipped from public view after that. (Furman is now the one who typically shows up on CNN, although Goolsbee remains a top adviser.)
Of course, Goolsbee's statement was almost certainly true: As Obama himself later suggested to Fortune magazine, his rhetoric on NAFTA had strayed from his policy sensibility, which was less overtly hostile to free trade. During the primaries, his union-friendly rhetoric on education also deviated from his original writings and speeches, which put more emphasis on teacher accountability. On other, more recent occasions, Obama has wandered right, over faith-based social services and the Iraq war. In none of those cases did Obama actually contradict himself; in each one, he was guilty, at most, of changing emphasis. (And, to be very clear about it, these episodes hardly compare to the wholesale flip-flops of the McCain campaign; see TRB, page 5 for more on this.) But emphasis is often the way campaigns send messages and frame political debates.
It's not clear exactly what role Obama's policy staff played in determining these moves. But, in a campaign where pure strategists like Axelrod are both closer to the candidate and greater in number, it's fair to wonder how hard policy specialists can push back to defend an issue position when it's become an electoral liability. And that's where somebody with Furman's portfolio might make a difference: by putting another strong voice for substance at the table and, when necessary, coming up with creative ways to square smart policy with unpalatable politics. In 2004, for example, it was Furman who played a key role in producing one of the few bright spots for Wesley Clark's doomed presidential bid: a tax-reform proposal that managed to promise Democratic voters a goody-- lower taxes for everybody making less than $50,000--while simultaneously pursuing a goal cherished by most card-carrying economists, a simpler tax system. And, if the job at this late stage involves more policy promotion than policy formulation, that's also something where the new blood's influence is already showing. Typical was a recent Furman memo--they come to policy reporters almost every other day now--dissecting the McCain budget. It was crisply done, with an easy-to-grasp summary. But, with footnotes, an appendix, and eight pages of text, it was also devastatingly thorough.
The danger in this transformation, naturally, is that it goes too far--that, with the addition of so many veterans, the Obama campaign loses some of its characteristic brashness. But that seems like a second-order worry at this point, particularly since nobody within the campaign thinks of the staff changes as an overhaul. It was the outsiders like Higginbottom who got Obama this far, and it will be the outsiders who carry him to a victory, should he win. Picking up a few insiders like Furman just makes that outcome a little more likely.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic. He is also a senior fellow at Demos and the author of Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis--and the People Who Pay the Price.