The work of the president-elect has begun. There is no time to savor victory, no time to ease into the job. Two hot wars and the greatest economic crisis of our time have combined to create an unprecedented sense of urgency. The oft-repeated advice to hit the ground running isn’t very helpful when that ground is roiled by violent seismic activity.
Barack Obama plainly anticipated the need for immediate action to deal with these extraordinary challenges. Well before election day, he selected John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, to prepare for the transition. In other times, such a move would have been regarded as presumptuous. Today, given what may be the toughest transition in decades, a more realistic view has taken hold.
Early planning wasn’t always as important as it is today. But the adoption in 1932 of the 20th Amendment, moving inauguration day from March 4 to Jan. 20 and thereby shaving more than 40 days off the transition, produced a sea change. That left a mere 2 1/2 months.
In 1992, Clinton asked Vernon Jordan to chair his transition and me to be transition director, a role I filled until I was designated secretary of State in mid-December. We did some things right and we did some things not quite so right. I offer a few observations and suggestions based on that experience.
The transition process is an enormous undertaking. When the new staff arrives at the White House in late January, they will be met by empty desks and barren file cabinets, as well as enormous expectations and immediate deadlines. By then, the president is expected to have selected all 15 members of his Cabinet as well as his White House senior staff. The new president must give a speech on inauguration day that sets out his policy agenda and submit a trillion-dollar-plus budget to Congress soon after.
In 1992, Clinton lingered a bit in choosing a White House team and did not appoint Mack McLarty as his chief of staff until mid-December. The delay, historians say, may have accounted for Clinton’s rocky first year. President-elect Obama’s quick decision Wednesday to offer the job of chief of staff to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) shows he is determined not to make similar mistakes.
In the weeks ahead, as he chooses the key economic and foreign policy players in his administration, the president-elect should focus on creating a team rather than an assemblage of prima donnas. Clinton brought together a first-rate economic group (Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin, Leon Panetta, Laura Tyson and Mickey Kantor) that worked harmoniously on highly contentious issues such as the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993. In contrast, President Bush’s selection of his foreign policy team (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet) did not reflect much regard for teamwork. The domineering conduct of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld rendered the team largely dysfunctional.
Obama’s key economic and foreign policy advisors should be selected by Dec. 1 and confirmed promptly after the inauguration. Congress should recognize the urgency of filling these posts and accelerate the confirmation process.
The important sub-Cabinet-level appointees should be identified by inauguration day or soon after. The Bush administration had only 30% of its national security appointees in place nearly eight months after inauguration. In these times, such a lapse should not be repeated.
Major policy agendas should be agreed on, legislation prepared and executive orders drafted -- all before the inauguration. It is a crucial time to set priorities and to demonstrate that key campaign promises will be fulfilled.
One line, however, should not be crossed. The nation can have only one president at a time. The president-elect should not take responsibility for, nor appear to endorse, decisions that are properly those of the incumbent. This is especially true with an outgoing administration that seems bent on making profound and troubling last-minute changes in the rules and regulations affecting civil liberties, abortion rights and the environment.
It is difficult to believe that Obama was nominated barely two months ago. In the intervening period, the world has gone into economic free fall, and a series of desperate measures have been taken to calm the waters. The results of those hurried initiatives will take years to play out. In the interim, there is little, if any, good news on the horizon. Even the precipitous drop in oil prices, a development that seems positive, has a corresponding dark side: Our oil-rich adversaries -- Russia, Venezuela, Iran -- sense a diminution in their economic muscle and may react to that loss in ways that will tax even an agile, decisive foreign policy team.
Obama was elected to the most important job in the world because he has the talent and temperament to do that job. Though he can’t take office until Jan. 20, he can demonstrate the qualities that have taken him to this pinnacle by quickly forming an administration in waiting.