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Obama knows what president not to copy: Jimmy Carter

I haven't written very much about Obama's first round of appointments -- not really in love with them, but not hating them either, just trying to detect a pattern, and I think one is starting to emerge. There's been a national obsession, for some reason, over which great American president that No. 44 needs to copy, whether it should be FDR and his New Deal or Abraham Lincoln and his "team of rivals"....or even this guy. Actually, I don't think Obama is copying anyone with his appointments as much as he trying to avoid turning out like a failed commander-in-chief of not so long ago. You may have heard of him: Jimmy Carter.

Like Obama, Carter strolled -- literally -- into Washington promising change from a corrupt (Nixon) and economically challenged (Ford) GOP presidency. And in order to keep his promise that "I will never lie to the American people" and avoid the corrupting influence of the nation's capital, he brought in a team not of rivals but total outsiders and newcomers to D.C., mainly from Georgia -- including his top aide Hamilton Jordan as well as name that are fading into history like Burt Lance, Jody Powell, and Griffin Bell.

The first three, in particular, were known as "the Georgia Mafia," marked by their casual blue-jean attire, their fierce loyalty to Carter, and their inability to get much done in "permanent Washington." The Georgetown cocktail-party crowd despised them, but what really mattered was they couldn't win legislative support despite huge Democratic majorities in Congress:

This refusal to play by the rules of Washington also contributed to the Carter administration's difficult relationship with Congress. Jordan and Frank Moore, in particular, feuded with leading Democrats like House Speaker Tip O'Neill from the start. Unreturned phone calls, insults (both real and imagined), and an unwillingness to trade political favors soured many on Capitol Hill and tangibly affected the president's ability to push through his ambitious agenda.
"There was an innocence, and an arrogance, about the idea that you could run the country with your Atlanta statehouse team -- you just couldn't," concludes historian Roger Wilkins. "Every president brings his people, but most presidents bring people who are seasoned people who really understand Washington and know how to move around the city. That just wasn't true of Jimmy Carter. You hate to say it, but it was often, it seemed, very amateurish."

Comes now Barack Obama, 32 years later, promising voters change in Washington and yet delivering a remarkably familiar cast of characters who don't carry much of a whiff of fresh air, folks like Rahm Emanuel and Tom Daschle and maybe even Hillary Clinton. So what gives? That's not change, is it? True, but they also happen to be hard-nosed "git'r done" types who won't get lost circling the Beltway for six hours.

The message that Obama is sending is that important change isn't new people so much as new ideas, and new ideals aren't worth a warm bucket of spit if they can't get enacted. And I don't think Obama is bringing these folks in to make new policy as much as carry it out. If Obama or anyone on his team has a plan for saving the auto industry, for example, I wouldn't care if it's Tom Daschle or Tom Arnold or Tom Thumb that he gets to carry it through, as long as it's a good plan.

As Philly's own Booman said:

What's emerging from Chicago is a clear preference for toughness and people that are forceful and smart enough to ram home Obama's priorities. Obama is tapping experienced people but he's doing it so that he can enact a lot of change very quickly. Obama clearly wants to cut down on the learning curve, avoid rookie mistakes, and send a message that he means business.

Ultimately, we're going to judge Obama more by what he does than who he hires to carry it out. And to pass judgment on that, we're all going to have to wait another 60 days.