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Obama Moves To The Center

First Posted: 06/20/08 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:35 PM ET

Barack Obama

Barack Obama faces the difficult task of shifting his message away from the primary electorate to general election voters, while avoiding angering the more liberal primary voters who gave him the presidential nomination.

Obama appears at the close of this week to have overcome one of his first hurdles -- a furor among labor and activist leaders over his choice of a campaign director of economic policy.

On another potentially dangerous front -- building a general election foreign policy team -- there is less danger of hostile reaction to the integration of Hillary Clinton advisers into the Obama organization.

Obama's most provocative move in terms of economic policy has been to hire Jason Furman, who runs the relatively centrist Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution as his staff director for economic policy.

Furman brings with him, as an unpaid adviser, his mentor and the founder of the Hamilton Project, former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, as well as former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Both men have advocated pro-business policies and balanced budgets, and have been criticized by liberals who seek more government spending.

At the same time that the economy flourished during Rubin's and Summers' tenure (1995-2000) -- per capita income rose from $22,153 to $25,469 in inflation-adjusted dollars; median family income rose from $53,349 to $59,398; and unemployment fell from 5.6 to 4.0 percent -- both Treasury secretaries were accused of acceding to Wall Street pressure to eliminate deficit spending at the expense of the poor and unemployed.

The Furman appointment faced a flurry of criticism from such figures as AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and blogger-author David Sirota, leading to a substantial bloc of liberal Democrats quickly stepping in to quiet the discontent.

Furman pointedly noted that his circle of advisers will include economists viewed favorably by organized labor and its allies, including University of Texas professor James Galbraith and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Also backing Furman were New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who wrote:

"Furman is a very good guy, with a solid track record as a progressive...my sense is that Jason Furman has become a proxy target for some Obama supporters who, now that the Great Satanness has been defeated, are suddenly starting to have the queasy feeling that their hero might be a bit of a .... centrist."

Other Furman supporters include SEIU president Andy Stern, who told The Huffington Post, "I am completely convinced after hearing from the campaign that Jason will serve Obama's interests and priorities not his own. And Jared Bernstein's involvement is also a good sign."

Bernstein, of the pro-union Economic Policy Institute, has been added to the list of those to be consulted by the Obama campaign. Bernstein said in response to a Huffington Post inquiry:

"The concern that's surfaced in the last few days maybe comes down to: will Obama be pro-worker in ways that we haven't typically seen from Jason, [University of Chicago economist and top Obama adviser] Austan Goolsbee, and Rubin, but have seen from EPI types like me? Obviously, I think so and that's what I'm doing there ... It's a work in progress but I very much like what I've seen so far."

Robert Reich was more cautious in his comments: "My hope is that Jason proves to be an honest broker, and that the views of Bob Rubin & company are balanced by other views and voices within the Party."

While the Furman controversy reflects the intensifying dispute on trade and globalization policies within the Democratic Party, intra-party tensions over foreign policy and the post-defacto-nomination directions taken by the Obama campaign have not yet been seriously exacerbated -- although all bets are off if differences over withdrawal from Iraq begin to surface.

The Obama campaign is reaching out to such Bill and Hillary Clinton stalwarts as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and one of her top aides, James Rubin.

In the international relations policy arena, sources in and out of the Obama camp described a more subtle process taking place, as Obama is forced to decide which Clinton experts to add to the team, and at what level in the hierarchy.

"While there are exceptions on both sides, one of the key differences between the Clinton and Obama foreign policy gurus is generational. And this generational split has significant consequences," one knowledgeable expert said, speaking on background. "In the main, the senior folks in the Clinton administration (1993-2001) went with Hillary, while many of the less senior people went with Obama."

Hillary Clinton's foreign policy advisers came of political age during the Cold War, in many cases during in the Carter administration, and tend to see the world in terms of states and state conflicts, this source said. In addition, many of Hillary Clinton's top advisers "spent eight years dealing with Saddam [Hussein's] intransigence in the 90s," making them more receptive to the arguments for invading Iraq.

Conversely, this expert argued, many of the Obama advisers are post-Cold War theorists who tend to see the world in terms of failed states, the influence of technology, food crises, non-state actors like Osama bin Laden, the spread of nuclear weapons, and the uneven distribution of the benefits of globalization.

Albright has already voiced her willingness to help Obama, and she is expected to play a significant role -- in part because she is not viewed as a competitor for a major post in an Obama administration, and in part because she has hosted many gatherings of foreign policy experts that have included many of those now in the Obama camp.

Two other top Clinton advisers, former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, face more difficulty in gaining entry to the Obama camp, according to sources.

Holbrooke, who is known to have sharp elbows, reportedly does not get on well with two of Obama's key advisers, Anthony Lake, national security adviser in Bill Clinton's first term, and former assistant secretary of state Susan Rice. While Berger has many supporters, he also damaged his reputation by pleading guilty to unauthorized removal and retention of classified terrorism documents from the National Archives in 2003. He was fined $50,000, lost his security clearance for three years, and was placed on probation for two years.

The likelihood that neither Holbrooke nor Berger will be absorbed into the Obama foreign policy staff or the advisory structure at a high level actually works to lessen the probability of divisive Democratic conflict on this front.

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