Transition team wastes no time

Obama is moving quickly to show he has learned from Clinton’s mistake of fumbling the baton.

President-elect Obama hosted an economic summit in Chicago on Friday, to make the most of his short metamorphosis from candidate to world leader and to get his administration off to a quick, confident start on January 20.

The meeting with a group of government, academic, financial, and business experts was vaguely reminiscent of Bill Clinton's economic summit in Little Rock, Ark., during his own 1992 transition. But emulating Clinton's disorganized start definitely is not Obama's ambition.

"In my lifetime, it has never been more important to have an absolutely seamless transfer of power and authority," said Bill Galston, who was a White House domestic policy adviser in the early days of Clinton's presidency. "There is no option for a dropped baton."

Clinton and his youthful team came to regret many of the moves they made during their meandering preparations for governing. And 16 years later, they have not been shy about warning Obama about their stumbles. Some Democrats even trace their party's 1994 loss of the House and Senate back to that undisciplined transition, when the incoming president spent little time trying to build relationships with his party's power brokers on Capitol Hill yet ceded control of his early legislative agenda to them.

Clinton, in effect, kept campaigning through his transition, using up precious time traveling, talking, and talking some more, rather than ducking out of sight long enough to listen and plan. And as a small-state governor, he mistakenly believed that picking his Cabinet -- with diversity in his mind as much as or more than skills -- would be essential before assembling a White House team. Making matters worse, his initial White House staff had too little experience with Washington's ways, and it quickly showed.

One veteran of past Democratic transitions said that Obama's Friday gathering was intended to be more than Clinton's "Little Rock two-day gabfest," describing it as "a more intense dialogue, one that serves his need to know."

Among those who participated were economic advisers who became familiar faces during Obama's campaign (and some who may get jobs in his administration), including former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, and a diverse cast of players who can speak to the economic woes of cities, states, industries, and workers, like Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

As Obama's Democratic supporters are keenly aware, he will take command of two expensive wars in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. He will inherit what could be a slide into the deepest recession in a quarter-century, plus an ocean of red ink that could exceed $1 trillion next year. And by February, Obama must revise President Bush's handover budget and begin reordering Uncle Sam's priorities.

"The reason an early start is smart is because you really do have to hit the ground running with the crises facing this president," said former Rep. Leon Panetta, who has offered transition insights to Obama's team. Panetta was Clinton's second of four chiefs of staff after serving as his budget director.

Obama got an early jump on his transition planning last spring, turning discreetly to Washington veterans and survivors of the Clinton years for advice on how best to launch his administration should he win the White House. Obama's transition helpers were sworn to secrecy until Election Day, and dozens of usually loose-lipped Democrats kept quiet about their work, leery of hurting the nominee's chances for victory and in many cases harboring private ambitions to work in an Obama administration.

On Wednesday, Obama allowed many of his transition helpers to lift their veils, and announced their names. Obama started putting the pieces on his chessboard by asking Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois to become the White House chief of staff, a position the House Democratic Caucus chairman accepted on Thursday after much deliberation. Emanuel was said to be torn about the prospect of abandoning his longtime ambition of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House. Several sources said that Obama's economic team had not quite jelled and might not be ready for introduction until at least next week.

President Bush, promising a professional and supportive transition, plans to meet with his successor on Monday and has ordered his own administration to give the Obama team any briefings and information the president-elect requests or needs. The day after the election, Obama began receiving the same national security briefing that Bush gets each morning.

One of the most interesting things that the Bush White House did in the run-up to the election was to negotiate with both the Obama and McCain campaigns on developing and purchasing a cutting-edge software system capable of handling the thousands of résumés that will inundate the incoming administration. When Bush was first elected eight years ago, the system he used for tracking job seekers was considered high tech for the time. But it is now "sub-optimal," said Blake Gottesman, assistant to the president and head of White House operations. "We said, 'Let's agree on what it's going to look like. And we'll spend the money for the contracts.' " That new system is in place and awaiting the Obama administration, he said.

The White House National Security Council kept the national security advisers to both presidential nominees abreast of Bush's foreign-policy decisions on, for instance, North Korea and Iraq, said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. But most of the Bush White House's transition work this year focused on preparing detailed explanations and briefing materials about Bush policies and operations, so that the next president's team will have a solid foundation of knowledge on day one.

Now that Obama is president-elect, he is privy to classified information that he could not see before -- about Iran, for example. Half of the NSC career staff -- approximately 100 people -- will remain in place to serve Obama until he replaces them. Although by law Bush's NSC records will be removed and archived, copies of records and information will remain behind, and the NSC's records-management staff members will be able to quickly find almost anything the new president and his advisers request, Johndroe added.

On the day after the election, Obama and his transition team signed an important memorandum of understanding with the General Services Administration that officially affirms his new status and releases $5.3 million in federal funds for his transition, with workspace and equipment provided on three floors of a secure building in downtown Washington. Obama's transition headquarters in Chicago announced, in keeping with Democratic Party inclusiveness, that the president-elect has three transition chairs: John Podesta, Clinton's fourth White House chief of staff and president of the Center for American Progress, an influential left-leaning think tank; Valerie Jarrett, who has known the Obamas in Chicago for 17 years; and Obama's former Senate chief of staff, Pete Rouse.

Many on Obama's transition team have ties to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, author of "Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis" and someone many Washington hands mentioned as a possible White House chief of staff. Daschle, however, is thought to prefer the post of secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Obama transition team has already put together a VIP advisory board of former Democratic officials with impressive résumés, including former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, former Commerce Secretary William Daley, and domestic policy and legal specialist Christopher Edley. The advisory team is a blend of Obama supporters from all phases of his life and includes Harvard friends, former colleagues, and seasoned government hands who spent years in the Clinton administration. The board has worked for months on policy development, personnel picks and vetting, and reviews of the White House and the agencies and departments to determine where Obama should make changes.

The president-elect requires his transition team to be nearly as scrupulous about keeping an arm's-length distance from registered lobbying as he will expect his White House staff to be once it is formally on the federal payroll next year. Already, there is grumbling in Washington that Obama's transition is too closed to experts not knighted by Podesta and is perhaps overzealous in freezing out specialists who could be helpful on issues but are deemed untouchables because they represented clients in those areas. One Democratic source who is not a registered lobbyist said that the transition team may circumvent its own strictures by tapping some specialists for "advisory roles."

At the time the senator from Illinois began to contemplate actually governing the nation, he was preoccupied with pulling together a strong set of advisers on international affairs, the area where he was deemed most vulnerable. Building an economic team eventually loomed larger because of the financial crisis that turned dramatically worse in mid-September.

Washington's chattering class is loud in urging Obama to move swiftly to nominate key economic advisers -- both to reassure Americans and the markets and to get a jump on the often-lengthy Senate confirmation process. Many of these observers think that Obama won decisively enough to elicit at least a measure of cooperation on Capitol Hill and from the public, including many of those who did not vote for him. But it will be Congress that ensures or scuttles Obama's success.

"His ability to work successfully with the Congress is the whole ball game," said Joel Johnson, a partner in the Glover Park Group and a former Daschle aide who was a senior adviser in the Clinton White House. "Obama has big problems to solve -- a far-reaching and complicated agenda. And none of it happens without a majority [in Congress].... Apart from some executive actions, like reversing some executive orders imposed by the Bush administration, everything he needs to do to turn the country around is going to require congressional approval."

A lesson Clinton learned is that Democratic majorities in Congress are helpful but don't automatically translate into support for a new Democratic president's proposals. A lesson Bush learned too late was that managing his party in Congress does not mean dictating in all things. "I think there are big opportunities in strengthened Democratic majorities," Johnson added, "but they are opportunities that must be created and managed by the White House."

A former lawmaker predicts that it will be tougher than it looks for Obama to command his party's troops on the Hill. "It's going to be a challenge," said one former Democratic lawmaker. "You're going to have Democrats who feel they've had eight years in Siberia and [have] a lot of pent-up frustrations. And there will be a greater number of Blue Dogs to reckon with.... The basic decision Obama has to make is, does he try to work with Republicans, or are they going to be so insular it won't work?"

Transition experts are also watching carefully to see how Obama shifts some of his campaign staff into a governing mode after a two-year, hard-fought contest. Obama has to adjust his own thinking, a conversion that rarely happens for newly elected presidents in days, or even weeks. The 77-day-long transition is especially important for that reason.

Obama's top strategists earned plaudits from both parties for the disciplined and innovative ways they organized the Obama-Biden campaign, challenging the Democratic status quo as well as a down-on-its-heels GOP. The campaign overcame doubts about Obama's experience, his background, and his vision for the country. But governing is not campaigning, and successful governing takes a different mix of players. Some transition experts have observed that Clinton adapted campaigning to the modern presidency -- the phenomenon of the permanent campaign -- by campaigning for policies.

Obama, a magnificent communicator, may find his sweet spot with a seasoned governing team, a cooperative Congress, and the pressure to deliver or else. "I think we're going to see an effort by the president-elect to demonstrate that he's going to seek the best, smartest, most serious people -- regardless of party -- to give him the credibility to deal with national security and economic affairs," said the veteran transition adviser. "I think Obama is going to be very serious about that."

Several sources predict that Obama's most reassuring decision tied to Iraq and Afghanistan will be keeping Defense Secretary Robert Gates in place for at least a year, layering in his own defense team beneath Gates. "That obviously would make that transition easier," said one former Clinton aide.

Johnson, a registered lobbyist (and quick to add that he has not advised Obama's team), said asking Gates to remain would provide continuity on national security issues at a time when the economy is arguably a more pressing emergency. (There is some question about whether Gates is willing to stay on, and there's a contingent of support for nominating retiring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to take over the Defense Department.)

"The economy has cratered," Johnson continued. "Do you really want to have a new team to worry about in the Pentagon?" As president-elect, "you don't know the path you're on with the economy, but you know the path you're on in Iraq. Why not keep the guy who's executed the orders in place to... finish doing a job, which is simply carrying out from very clear directives what Obama said he would do?"

And that's exactly what the career professionals in the Pentagon may be eager to do for the 44th president, said Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA counsel and the 1992-93 head of Clinton's Defense transition team. "Candidly, I think a lot of them really want new leadership," he said.