09/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Reinvents Wonk Team With More Insiders

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, 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.

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