Obama Alumni Return to Washington, This Time as House Freshmen
Posted November 25, 2018 3:14 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — Their previous jobs have taken them to the Oval Office, the Situation Room and the Senate floor. One met with a Saudi king and plotted strategy to fight the Islamic State group. Another cracked down on human rights abuses in North Korea. Their Rolodexes are flush with former Cabinet members and current Pentagon officials who are happy to take their calls.
Nearly a dozen members of the House’s incoming class are far from being gawky freshmen, stumbling wide-eyed through the strange corridors of Capitol Hill, but are instead experienced policymakers who have worked in previous presidential administrations — eight of them for former President Barack Obama. Their return to Washington is, in part, a way to undo what they see as the unspooling of the values and legacy of the nation’s 44th president.
“We have just won a very fragile foothold in one institution in Washington at a time when all the institutions and norms are under attack,” said Tom Malinowski, who served Obama as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “This election is not about changing the country. It’s about saving the country.”
But in a freshman class where confrontation, not cooperation, could be most prized, it is not clear whether the Washington veterans will assume leadership roles or take a back seat to younger, brasher freshmen such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
The group brings not only experience, “but a philosophy of government,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser, adding: “They’re progressive but they’re pragmatic. They’re results-oriented. They measure success more by what they do than whether they can score a win for the blue team.”
House Democrats have promised real progress on an agenda that includes lowering prescription drug prices, expanding health insurance coverage and increasing infrastructure investment, as well as investigating President Donald Trump. And these freshmen — who include a Cabinet secretary to President Bill Clinton and former key policy players at the White House and Pentagon — provide significant heft.
“This is a group that has really seen it all,” said Eric Lesser, a former Obama White House aide who is now a state senator in Massachusetts. “They’re just not going to be intimidated.”
A pair of them, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Malinowski of New Jersey, have previously tussled with Congress. Slotkin, a former CIA officer who served three tours of duty in Iraq and informed the nation’s strategy against the Islamic State, appeared before the Senate for her confirmation hearing as a nominee for assistant secretary of defense to Obama. (She also served under George W. Bush.)
Malinowski, who helped levy sanctions against North Korean officials for human rights abuses, was confirmed as assistant secretary of state after receiving lavish praise from Sen. John McCain. Another incoming member, Haley Stevens of Michigan, was once in charge of Obama’s Senate confirmations and Cabinet designations.
Joining them is a former Clinton health and human services secretary, Donna Shalala of Florida, who dealt with the rising cost of health care long before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and Lauren Underwood of Michigan, a former senior adviser on health issues under Obama. Andy Kim of New Jersey served on Obama’s National Security Council. Incoming members are already leveraging one of the perks of their veteran status: an easy familiarity with prominent movers and shakers. Slotkin was in the green room at MSNBC, waiting to be interviewed, when she bumped into a lawyer she knew from her days working on Bush’s National Security Council, John B. Bellinger III.
“I sort of said, ‘Hey, I just want to reintroduce myself, I was a young staffer when you were the senior lawyer at State,” she said. “He couldn’t have been more lovely, and we were reconnecting on people we knew in common.”
Malinowski said he intended to reach out to Republican senators with whom he has worked, and Slotkin’s stack of congratulatory notes looks like a who’s who of Washington.
“A lot of my national security community from both sides of the aisle have been reaching out and saying, ‘Anything we can do,'” she said in an interview.
On the other side of the aisle, Michael Waltz, R-Fla., is a former Green Beret officer who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s counterterrorism adviser and as the Pentagon’s director for Afghanistan policy.
In significant ways, the Washington that the Obama alumni are returning to is a different place, ruled by people who rose to power by explicitly repudiating Obama.
In many cases, that compelled them to run. Underwood, a nurse and former Obama health adviser, was spurred on by Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, backed by the incumbent she ultimately defeated. “I got mad,” she said.
Many who ran viewed their campaigns as an answer to the call to action that Obama issued in his farewell address delivered in Chicago, where he implored his supporters to take up the mantle of his legacy.
“Who better to offer that accountability than people who have seen an administration from the inside and understand how to hold it accountable?” asked Julián Castro, a secretary of housing and urban development under Obama.
Colin Allred of Texas, a former White House fellow and special assistant to the general counsel of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Castro, has expertise that will be in high demand: congressional oversight. One of his tasks at HUD was fielding oversight requests from Capitol Hill.
Allred, a former NFL linebacker and civil rights lawyer who ousted a veteran Texas Republican, said Democrats must strike a careful balance between oversight and legislation.
“I ran for Congress, and now I am planning to go there to get things done,” he said. “I think there are certainly times when we need to be a check on this president, but there are also things that we can work with him on.” For some alumni who heeded Obama’s call to service, the rewards were rich. Funded personally by Obama, an infrastructure emerged to help former administration officials capture office.
Officials, such as Eric Holder, the former attorney general, Samantha Power, the former U.N. ambassador, and Valerie Jarrett, the former senior White House adviser, headlined fundraisers in seven major cities across the nation — in one instance tickets started at $44 and went up to $10,000. Joe Biden, the former vice president, campaigned for Underwood, and when Obama headlined a rally in his home state of Illinois, she was there.
Jim Hagedorn, a newly elected Republican from Minnesota and former Treasury Department official, and Waltz did not have all that at their disposal. But they did market their experience. Waltz featured a snapshot of himself in Cheney’s office shaking the vice president’s hand.
Waltz said he saw room to work with the Obama alumni, noting their shared experiences in national security and overseas service.
“On the ship, in the foxhole, no one cares about your political affiliation. It’s about mission. It’s about getting results,” he said in an interview. “I pray we keep that ethos.”