By Michael D. Shear, Michael Abramowitz, Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 19, 2008
If Sen. Barack Obama wakes up as the president-elect on Nov. 5, he will immediately assume responsibility for fixing a shredded economy while the Bush administration is still in office. If Sen. John McCain wins the election, he will face an imminent confrontation over spending with a Democratic Congress called back into special session with the goal of passing a new economic stimulus package.
Either way, the 77-day period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, traditionally known simply as the transition, is sure to present difficult challenges to a new president buffeted by intense forces, political and economic, without any chance to recover from the long and bruising campaign.
The challenge of putting the country back on a sound financial track has altered what under the best of circumstances would have been a frenzied period spent forming a new government. Instead, Obama or McCain will be forced to assemble a new administration even as he helps shape policies to ward off further declines in the economy.
And whoever is the new president will be under intense pressure from his own allies to live up to his campaign promises. Antiwar groups would press Obama to start the process of ending the war in Iraq, and conservatives would demand tax cuts from McCain. Either side would want to know that its candidate has an agenda to enact on his first day in the White House. With the outcome of the election still in doubt, neither campaign is eager to discuss plans for that day or the transition that precedes it, other than to acknowledge the urgent circumstances the 44th president will confront.
"I don't think he's thinking about [Inauguration Day on] January 20," said one top Republican involved in the McCain campaign. "He's thinking about November 5."
David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist, promised last week that if "we are successful, we will be ready to act quickly to put our plan in place."
McCain has tapped John F. Lehman, a close friend who was a Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, to lead the transition. Former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta is running Obama's effort.
Neither would be interviewed for this article, but advisers to both campaigns say they are aware of the problems that can arise if careful thought is not given to how to handle those first days and weeks. They believe that much of President Bill Clinton's ineffectiveness in his first year can be traced to bad decisions during the transition and his first days in office. And this year's economic crisis is certain to heighten those concerns, both sides said.
Those involved in planning a possible McCain transition say he is genuinely interested in bipartisan governing and would immediately reach out to the opposition. But his interest in working with the other party may run afoul of the likely rage many Democrats will feel if the White House slips from their grasp in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign.
"If they lose this one, you are going to have a lot of really angry Democrats," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), a McCain ally and the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee.
Top advisers said McCain would move quickly to implement the economic agenda he has promised, including tax cuts, business incentives, lower trade subsidies and controls on government spending that he says are bankrupting the country. But Democratic leaders have already signaled their intention to pass a stimulus package during November's lame-duck session.
"If they try to put together a $300 billion stimulus package that's throwing money at problems -- feel-good money -- and we haven't gotten the accountability and reform in place, then we'll have a fight," predicted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain confidant.
Obama would have to try to influence economic policy while it is still the province of President Bush, whose policies could have lasting effects on an Obama presidency that was supposed to emphasize "change" and "hope."
"He's going to be deferential to an outgoing president, but also not shy about expressing himself," said a senior Democrat involved in transition talks. "I wouldn't be surprised if you see as much visibility post-election as now."
Obama would also have to take steps aimed at fulfilling his promise to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. To ensure continuity at the Pentagon, he may try to persuade Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to stay in order to begin designing a plan that establishes the time frame for withdrawal.
How Obama would manage the phase between his election and inauguration could set the tone for his presidency. And in the days after being sworn in, Obama would face opportunities and pitfalls on an immense scale.
He could establish the image of a young, history-making president with a mandate from the country and the backing of a friendly Congress. Or he could appear to be an inexperienced new executive, caught between the demands of Republicans he pledged to consult and newly energized liberals who expect him to make good.
As the stimulus package works its way through Congress, and as the government takes further steps to rescue the faltering financial system, Obama allies believe the president-elect could quickly set the tone for his administration by stepping into a public role on the economy that Bush has given to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. Still, Obama advisers were loath to discuss in detail their plans for after the election. McCain has already chastised Obama for "measuring the drapes" in the Oval Office.
"You have to be careful," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). "If anything, McCain has shown to have a lot of different lives. I would caution against a lot of focus on transition."
But mindful of the enormous stakes, Obama's transition team is working intensively on a plan that would both capitalize on his current momentum and make good on his pledges to enact change and set a new tone.
"Any responsible candidate would be planning for the prospect of victory," Axelrod said.
Obama advisers are debating which executive orders he could issue quickly to begin reversing Bush policies such as the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research
In conjunction with his close allies in the Democratic majority, Obama is considering which piece of legislation -- such as an extension of children's health insurance, which failed by just a few votes this past year -- he could push through Congress immediately after Jan. 20 as smaller "down payments" on his larger goals.
Obama has made many promises over the course of nearly two years on the campaign trail: immigration reform; tuition assistance for college students; a rural-issues summit; a new ethics code; and a sweeping review of all of Bush's executive orders. How, or whether, he would be able to tackle such initiatives remains very much an open question both because of the shattered economy and because Obama's aggressiveness in governing is as yet unknown.
For McCain, the period from Election Day through the inauguration would also have an important part of shaping perceptions of his presidency. As part of his campaign's effort to build a case against Obama, the senator from Arizona has argued, as he did at the final debate in New York, that "the next president won't have time to get used to the office. He won't have the luxury of studying up on the issues before he acts. He will have to act immediately."
The advisers declined to comment about how McCain would staff his Cabinet or his White House. But Republicans close to McCain said he has already begun thinking about how to restock Washington with new faces, shedding much of the Bush administration while trying to maintain the necessary stability to deal with ongoing foreign and domestic problems.
But "he's going to reach out beyond the circle he has now," said one confidant. "I don't think he will feel limited at all. He's serious about shaking things up, getting people who have not been in government, new blood."
The first week after Election Day is guaranteed to be a whirlwind. One friend said McCain would "get a good night's sleep." Another joked he would "celebrate the 2,000-point rally" in the Dow Jones industrial average.
But his advisers promised some immediate actions in those first few days aimed at projecting confidence and offering proof that he was following through on his promises: coordination with the Homeland Security Department; a request for a status report on efforts to secure the border; and the announcement that he would send a team of "unofficial observers" to the United Nations Climate Change conference in Poland.
Like any president-elect, McCain would have to tread lightly while Bush finished out his final days. Graham predicted that the pair would treat each other in a "smooth and professional" manner, despite having once been bitter rivals.
McCain advisers say they recognize that there are certain actions they could not take -- for example, ordering Paulson to implement some aspects of McCain's economic recovery plan -- during the transition.
But that has not stopped them from thinking about what he would need to do once Bush left office. While some of the broad policies have been trumpeted by McCain on the campaign trail, his aides last week offered some details about the specific steps he is contemplating taking if he reaches the White House. The advisers said McCain would issue an executive order shutting down the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, appoint a full-time Middle East peace envoy and begin pushing Congress to take an up-or-down vote on a bipartisan plan to control the growth of Medicare spending.
He would act quickly on the economic crisis, sending Congress a new budget with a bevy of proposed tax cuts -- on unemployment benefits, businesses, capital gains and other areas-- while imposing a one-year spending freeze on most federal agencies. He would create a 9/11-style commission to determine the roots of the "regulatory failures" that contributed to the current financial crisis.
On foreign policy, McCain would embark on a listening tour, visiting key allies and partners around the world, a move that would be aimed at rebuilding alliances that they say have frayed during the Bush administration. At the April NATO summit in Strasburg, Germany, he would push to deepen NATO relations with Ukraine and Georgia, a move that would likely bring more conflict with Russia. At the same time, aides are promising that he would quickly commence new negotiations with Russia on reducing nuclear weapons arsenals.
And, they said, he would direct his secretary of defense to begin an immediate personnel expansion of the Army and Marine Corps to a combined 900,000, one-fifth larger than the Bush administration has called for.