FDR's Handling of Turbulent Transition Could Guide Next President

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt came to office in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, has a new president confronted the kinds of challenges that await the winner of the campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Roosevelt is remembered best for the flurry of action that marked his first 100 days in office, but what transpired between his election and inauguration was equally fateful. How the next president-elect interprets that history could have a profound effect on his entire presidency.

In the fall of 1932, the country was beginning to experience faint signs of recovery. But the election and the transition seemed to stop it in its tracks. Herbert Hoover lacked the standing to rally the country. Roosevelt wanted no part of his predecessor's legacy and stood apart. From November to March, when Roosevelt was finally sworn in, the country entered a period of drift and demoralization. By the time Roosevelt took office, he faced a full-blown crisis.

Whether things would have been different by Inauguration Day and beyond had Roosevelt cooperated with Hoover is not knowable. But Obama or McCain will be faced with a similar decision about how to approach the transition. With President Bush's approval at 25 percent and the country hungry for change, will either Obama or McCain seek a collaboration on decision-making with the White House? And with the economy teetering, can either afford to stand on the sidelines until January?

The transition may pit the demand for change with the need for continuity in treating the ailing financial system. "That's the dilemma for Obama and McCain," said presidential historian Robert Dallek. "That's going to be ticklish business -- to keep a certain distance from Bush but to say and do things" to inspire confidence and cushion the blows of the worsening recession.

The economy has been deteriorating for many months. But for the candidates, in almost the blink of an eye, any hope for an orderly start to the next administration has been called into question. Global economic conditions will make the transition period between Nov. 5 and Inauguration Day in January one of the most important in the history of the country, say scholars and analysts.

The financial crisis threatens a deep and long-term recession that will reshape priorities of the new administration. Already it's clear that the efforts to treat the problem, along with the effects of the slowdown, will send the federal budget deficit skyrocketing toward $1 trillion. The administration's response has radically redrawn the relationship between government and the private sector that will require careful and constant oversight.

Once through the transition, the new president will be thrust into a critical debate, as he chooses between those advocating massive economic stimulus to kick-start the ailing economy and those warning that, with the world in recession, there may be no way to finance yet another massive increase in the national debt.

That's not all. Overseas, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan require immediate attention -- as the new president looks for an exit strategy from Iraq and considers a deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan, Russia and China add to the foreign policy tests.

"Putting partisan opinions to one side, an important contrast between 2009 and 2001 is that, with the exception of al-Qaeda, the agenda for 2001 was more open, fluid and proactive while the agenda for 2009 will be powerfully driven by ongoing world crises and obligations to address the previous administration's decisions," said Philip Zelikow, a former Bush administration official now at the University of Virginia.

On Nov. 5, the new president-elect will awaken exhausted after a two-year campaign but without the luxury enjoyed by most previous presidents. Those leaders were free to assemble their Cabinets and White House staffs, draft their inaugural speeches and put together a governing plan for the first 100 days with only minimal regard for what the incumbent president was doing.

Not this year. William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and domestic policy adviser during President Bill Clinton's first term, said the current set of problems will require a fundamental rethinking of how to handle the transition and how to make personnel decisions for the new administration.

"The importance of a seamless transition from one administration to the next has rarely been higher," he said. "We simply as a country can't afford to have the baton dropped. This tells me real continuity is going to be extremely important."

That would be a dramatic departure from the Hoover-to-Roosevelt handoff. In his book "The Defining Moment," Jonathan Alter describes the chaotic standoff between Hoover and Roosevelt. Hoover was consumed with the issue of foreign debt repayment and tried to draw Roosevelt into dealing with it. Roosevelt balked, believing domestic recovery should be the priority. In today's context, Roosevelt saw Hoover's focus as the equivalent of bailing out Wall Street and bankers, rather than helping homeowners facing foreclosure or workers who have lost their jobs.

The two met at the White House in late November and found little agreement. Later meetings produced little. At one point, Roosevelt declared, "It's not my baby." By Alter's account, Roosevelt's standoffish posture was calculated. "His political instincts told him that if he were enlisted by Hoover in November, he would not be able to break sharply from the past the following March," Alter writes.

No one can safely predict that a similar posture will work for the next president-elect. Both McCain and Obama have embraced the $700 billion rescue package and the more stunning announcement that the government would take an equity stake in major banks. Are they now obliged to cooperate with all further steps? Obama might look to the Democratic-controlled Congress, in a lame-duck session, to push a new stimulus package, but would he risk putting a partisan stamp on his administration by doing so?

"It's a challenging moment for the president-elect," said House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). "I hope the next president reaches out to the current president to say, 'What can we do to work together so that on January 20th, I've got as big a head start on solving the problems as we can possibly achieve?' "

Whoever wins may be forced to take his lead from Roosevelt's willingness to embrace what worked and jettison what didn't. In the spring of 1932, Roosevelt put that philosophy of governing in positive terms. "The country needs, and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation," he said. "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

Hoover derided FDR as "a chameleon on plaid." But Roosevelt is now remembered as one of the nation's greatest presidents. Historian Dallek said that the Roosevelt model is imperfect but that there may be valuable lessons for Obama or McCain. "You can't reach back and parrot what the FDR presidency was about, or the New Deal," he said. "But you do have to think in terms of that larger arc, of needing to inspire hope and restore confidence."

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