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Bill Clinton leaves big influence on Team Biden

When former President Clinton wanted to relay a message about what Joe Biden should say during a victory speech on Super Tuesday last year, he picked up the phone and dialed his former aide Bruce Reed, as he had done countless times before that day. 

Reed, who served as one of Biden's closest advisers on his presidential campaign, took notes as his former boss chimed in about how Biden should call for unification of the Democratic Party in his address. 

The Biden administration has often been called Obama 2.0, with many aides spilling over from the former Democratic president's White House. But Democrats say the huge overlap between the Biden and Clinton worlds is even more striking.

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“The former president has many ways to get his views into the White House bloodstream,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who also served as a policy adviser in Clinton’s White House. 

Reed, now Biden's deputy chief of staff, served as chief domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House. Biden's senior adviser Steve Richetti served as deputy chief of staff for operations under Clinton. Tina FlournoyHartina (Tina) FlournoyBill Clinton leaves big influence on Team Biden Kamala Harris's inauguration is historic milestone Harris taps women of color for key senior staff positions MORE, who serves as Vice President Harris's chief of staff, held the same job title until recently for Clinton. 

Galston said Gene Sperling's return as the czar overseeing the COVID-19 relief response “puts the cherry on top” of prominent Clinton aides who currently work for Biden. 

Clinton and Biden share a number of similarities, the president’s aides and allies say. 

“I’ve always thought Biden was much more Clinton than Obama,” one longtime Biden aide said. “I think that’s why so many of the people Clinton surrounded himself with are also Biden people. And I’m sure in many ways Biden’s approach is similar to Clinton’s approach."

“They’re cut from the same cloth,” the aide said.

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Part of the reason, those who know both men say, is their similar ideologies and the goals each president set out for his administration. 

“In addition to being by far the two best one-on-one campaigners I have ever seen, I would say that Clinton and Biden by nature are centrist optimists,” said Terry Shumaker, the former ambassador and veteran of Clinton and Biden campaigns who is a longtime friend of both men.

“Both grew up in modest circumstances, so they know firsthand what it is like to be a regular American. At their core, they believe that government should be a positive force in people’s lives but share an aversion to government overreach,” he said.

There’s also a common thread in their willingness to work across party lines, another longtime Clinton ally added. 

“By virtue of both his style and the circumstances of the time, President Clinton was able to work across party lines to get a lot of things done, and President BidenJoe BidenCensus results show White House doubling down on failure Poll: Americans back new spending, tax hikes on wealthy, but remain wary of economic impact True immigration reform requires compromise from both sides of the aisle MORE probably hopes that America can move close to such an era again,” the ally said. 

“It might be facile to suggest, but I would look more to Senator Biden’s words and deeds than those of Vice President Biden,” the ally added. “And I would look more to President Clinton’s leadership style than President Obama’s for clues to what lies ahead.” 

Those who worked in the Clinton administration say one of their biggest failures early on was to not draw more people from the Carter administration. 

“That was a big mistake Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonNever underestimate Joe Biden Joe Biden demonstrates public health approach will solve America's ills McAuliffe rising again in Virginia MORE made during the administration,” one Clinton alumnus said of the early days of his presidency. “They were capable people, but they didn’t have a lot of government experience.” 

Galston, of the Brookings Institution, said the Biden administration is packed with aides “with a tremendous amount of seasoning,” which in many ways mirrors Biden’s own experience in Washington.

“They know how to move the machinery of government,” he said. “It’s not by accident that he’s surrounded himself with professionals ... they think in a practical way. They’re not interested in striking moral gestures. They’re not patron saints of lost causes. These are people who have been in government operating in different climates.”

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said Biden is clearly drawing lessons from Clinton and Obama.

“Basically he has learned that the modern Republican Party is not interested in compromise and will go very far to obstruct and bring down Democratic administrations,” Zelizer said. “He’s also learned that ignoring the progressive wing of the party is a big mistake.”

When Clinton has an idea to share with Biden, he picks up the phone and calls the president or sends a message through one of their mutual associates, sources say. 

“There have been a number of times I can recall hearing something about Clinton picking up the phone to offer his two cents,” one Biden ally said, adding that the former president chimed in on broader themes and even on speeches like the one on Super Tuesday. “That’s what Bill Clinton does,” the ally added.