Obama's first days seen as a 'triumph of image'
President Barack Obama is settling his family into the White House, issuing executive orders left and right, and ensuring his Cabinet nominees are confirmed smoothly by the Senate. On the face of it, that's how Obama is spending his first few days as commander in chief. What else should the freshly sworn-in president be doing this week and next? Jeremy Mayer, director of the George Mason University public policy master's program, spoke with NationalJournal.com's Amy Harder and offered some speculation. Mayer is an expert in media politics, foreign policy and other presidential topics. Edited excerpts follow.
Q. What is unique about how the Obama administration has handled these past few days compared to past presidents?
Mayer: As far as the first two days of this administration, they have had triumph of image, which is important. One of the other tasks of the first week of an administration is to start the honeymoon well. If you want to carry a metaphor way beyond where it should go, if this is the honeymoon period and America is the bride and Obama the husband, we're checking into the honeymoon hotel this first week, and you don't want logistical problems.... The image that has been conveyed is crucial. He has done a very good job of making sure that the pictures that go across and the message that comes out are very positive and uplifting and patriotic. I think you have to go back to [Ronald] Reagan's inaugural to find one that has been this successful. That has really attracted the attention of the nation.
Q. What's the most important aspect of a president's few days on the job?
Mayer: The most important thing you can do is avoid mistakes. Do nothing that gets you off message. The classic early-days mistake is [Bill] Clinton and his statements about gays in the military, which was not in his top three priorities. The preparation for that issue had not been done with the military leadership. And so, even in the late transition and early days, it just created such a distraction.
You also are still working in these days to get your nominees through the Senate. And, the work that you did on vetting in the last two months is now shown to be good or bad. So, you've seen presidencies like George Bush the elder's torn up by things like the [John] Tower nomination [as Defense secretary], where you expend a lot of political capital whether you win or lose. So, a tough Senate vote in these first few days is a bad sign, or nominees going down in flames like Zoe Baird [Clinton's first choice for attorney general].
Q. How are the confirmation hearings of Obama's Cabinet choices going?
Mayer: You could say that the best decision Obama has made so far is pulling the plug on [Commerce nominee Bill] Richardson. As bad as [Timothy] Geithner and [Eric] Holder and [Hillary Rodham] Clinton are getting it -- and they're not getting it very bad -- Richardson would have been a bloodbath. And I don't know if it was Richardson's side or the Obama side that recognized this, but they pulled the plug. Right away. They made a mistake in not realizing how serious the investigation was, but they made a good decision to stop the bleeding right away.
Q. What typically makes up a president's first few days on the job?
Mayer: There has come to be a staple routine since Reagan of executive orders. These are the things that presidents can do most quickly. It is a very ill-defined line between a regulation and a law. And Congress has lost, over the last 50 years, a great amount of power to presidents who issue executive orders, which, unless changed by Congress, really have the force of law until the next president comes in. And particularly on social issues like abortion, these are things presidents can do very quickly.
Q. Are there any of Obama's executive orders that he issued Wednesday [Jan. 21] that stand out to you?
Mayer: The one about lobbying. Previous presidents have tried to raise the standards, and Obama really took it to a new level. He took it to longer bans, both on taking policy actions on issues that you had lobbied before and also preventing you from lobbying after you leave. And also expanding downward the number of appointees this applies to; it essentially applies to everybody who was appointed. This has real financial sacrifices attached to it for the people working for Obama. It is not a fig leaf. Now, he could end up doing what Clinton did -- Clinton put some pretty tough lobbying restrictions on his appointees, and then in his last month in office removed them. So the people who stayed all the way to the end of the road with Clinton were able to lobby very quickly. I just don't think Obama will do that, but who knows.
Q. What kind of message does any new administration hope the first couple days' events convey to Americans?
Mayer: Competence and mastery of the issues. Again, Clinton is instructive. The stumble on gays in the military was accompanied by a perception that the old hands of the Bush administration -- experienced and competent graybeards -- were replaced by these kids who really didn't know what they were doing. And so you had the poorly shaven George Stephanopoulos behind the microphone for the first few days at the White House. It did not leave a good impression; he looked like he was just out of college. And you want to have an impression... that this is a team that hit the ground running.
Q. What unique task does Obama have in front of him this week?
Mayer: Nothing less than saving capitalism, in some sense. We are at a crisis point in our global economy, and the challenge that is first and foremost on his desk is this bailout. He is now in charge of that second $350 billion and then figuring out the stimulus package, and I can't think of any president since [Franklin D. Roosevelt] who has been handed something that big that quickly.
Q. What do you think has been or will be the first issue he makes a concrete decision on?
Mayer: I think he's already done it. The decision about lobbying is more than procedure. It actually affects how government is going to operate. I don't know if we'd qualify this as a real decision, but getting [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, and [Jordan's King] Abdullah, and [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert on the phone. It is such a clear break. Appointing George Mitchell [as special envoy to the Mideast] -- George Mitchell is one of the most serious foreign policy negotiators in this country, and to say he is going to be on the ground in the Middle East in a matter of a week, which is I think is the message they're sending, is a sudden, sharp break from the hands-off Israel and Palestine policy of the most of the last eight years.