Top Obama Aide Recalls Tensions of 2008 Presidential Transition

Former president George W. Bush hugs President Obama after his January 2009 swearing in. Former president George W. Bush hugs President Obama after his January 2009 swearing in. Ron Edmonds/AP file photo

Best practices for running a change in administrations are frustratingly vague.

Hence the Obama White House planners, after Election Day 2012, found themselves mulling whether protocol required them to seek the resignations of Obama’s entire Cabinet. Then they realized, according to then-Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu, that they had all gleaned that “best practice” from an episode of TV’s “The West Wing.”

Lu, who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 transition team and is now deputy Labor secretary, on Wednesday recalled the tensions of executing the big changeover during a book signing at the National Academy of Public Administration for political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar’s new study “Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power” (Johns Hopkins University Press).

The 2008 transition, Kumar said, “was the best in anyone’s memory, in part because 9/11 made everyone recognize that a transition is fragile time.” Its hallmark was that President George W. Bush worked with both Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain beginning as early as the summer. Occasionally, “there were some harsh words from the Obama campaign about Bush, but people knew that was just part of the campaign,” Kumar said.

Past transitions were far more chaotic, as her book details, but Bush the younger was determined that his team would ease the process. Bush insisted on briefing the incoming Obama personally on three key foreign policy priorities.

The earliest effort at smoothing presidential transitions came from President Truman in the summer of 1952, Kumar recounted. He had felt burned when he took office after President Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 and learned how much had been kept from him as vice president—including the existence of the atomic bomb. Truman instructed his budget director to work with Democratic candidate Adlai Stephenson and Republican Dwight Eisenhower, suggesting separate briefings, then a lunch with Cabinet members. But Eisenhower balked (angering Truman), declaring that his primary duty was to “remain free to analyze publicly the policies and acts of the present administration.”

Lu described himself as “an accidental transition planner” who got the Washington job after other key Obama aides had moved to Chicago for the campaign. He said he and Obama were both inspired by the 1972 movie “The Candidate,” in which a pretty-boy novice politician played by Robert Redford won an upset victory and bewilderingly asked, “What do we do now?”

It’s nearly impossible to “put together a government transition in 77 days,” Lu said. So, as early as December 2007, Bush was in discussions with his chief of staff and in touch with both campaigns by summer of 2008. Lu set up quietly in a campaign office above a Subway sandwich shop “with no organized space or secure computers.” (Under a new law, the General Services Administration will now provide the office.) Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta provided leadership from the Center for American Progress, helping by making it clear he would not take a job with Obama, Lu said.

Before the election, both campaign staffs met with Bush Chief of Staff Josh Bolten to learn software, and read memoranda of understanding from agency review teams, and national security memos drafted by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley with help from the Defense and State departments. “It was a cooperative environment,” Lu said, though once a McCain campaign staff member complained that Obama’s people were “measuring the drapes” before the election.

Up until Election night, transition staff were tempted to seek “face time” with Obama to plan the transition, Lu said, but “a candidate’s most valuable resource is time, and his time is best spent winning the election.”

With victory secured, another Clinton Cabinet veteran, former Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner, helped by counseling that in 1992 “she’d been handed reams and reams of binders, but it was more important to boil things down” to what the incoming official needs to know, Lu said. “Clinton had made the mistake of selecting his Cabinet first, with the White House staff as an afterthought, but the president needs to have his core people around,” Lu said. “The best laid plans go wayward, as nominations fail. I felt we were hamstrung by the self-imposed ban on lobbyists” as appointments that Obama considered a high ethics priority.  “It only created an incentive for lobbyists to deregister.”

Transition staffers—many of them exhausted campaign workers proffering resumes and vying for permanent jobs—scurried to catalog all of Obama’s campaign promises, giving equal priority to each policy “bucket,” Lu said. But the urgency of the Great Recession forced a focus on budget and the economy, and few plans survive the chaos of a transition, he added.

The 2009 Recovery Act was a “testament to the work of career employees,” Lu said. One regret is that his team did not talk much early on to career agency specialists or provide more support staff to incoming secretaries.

“We were not considering management [issues], such as procurement reform, which are not sexy or talked about on the campaign trail, just policy and politics,” Lu said. “At the White House we’re not good managers—we’re good at messaging and issuing edicts.” Future transitions should make management a higher priority, he said.

One comical memory Lu recalled was from Jan. 20, 2009.  Some 50 newly tapped White House staff were put in a bus from the Inauguration and entered the White House. “There was no paper and no computers, and we were not sure what to do,” Lu recalled. “So I started wandering around.” Soon he picked up General Counsel Greg Craig, and perhaps 12 others, all wondering around the Executive Mansion. They asked a Secret Service agent whether it was okay for them to open doors to peek at offices. "Yes," the agent said. "But only today."

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