By Robert Barnes, Dan Eggen and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Faced with one of the most important transfers of presidential power in American history -- amid wars on two fronts, the looming threat of terrorism at home and a full-blown economic crisis -- the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama team have responded with exceptional cooperation on those issues, aides and outside experts say.
Serious decisions, and potentially divisive ones, still remain for the politically and ideologically divided camps, such as access to classified information and, in particular, battles over the regulations and executive orders that will define the policy of the two administrations.
But the days since Tuesday's election have shown a striking level of comity following the rancor of the campaign, enhanced by President Bush's months-long efforts to pave the way for a smooth transition and President-elect Barack Obama's preelection determination to move quickly.
"Ensuring that this transition is seamless is a top priority for the rest of my time in office," Bush said in his weekly radio address yesterday. "My administration will work hard to ensure that the next president and his team can hit the ground running."
Bush has created a transition coordinating council, populated by experts from inside and outside the administration, and has streamlined the process for obtaining security clearances for key transition officials. National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell flew to Chicago on Thursday to deliver Obama his first daily intelligence briefing.
The Obama team has begun submitting names to the FBI for expedited security clearances, which is allowed under an intelligence reform law passed in 2004. Officials said that more than 100 positions, down to the level of undersecretary, are eligible under the statute.
Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, said the White House is even preparing a "tabletop" exercise to simulate how Obama's national security officials should respond in the event of a terrorist attack.
"If a crisis hits on Jan. 21, they're the ones that are going to have to deal with it," Bolten said in an interview taped for broadcast today on C-SPAN. "We need to make sure they're as well-prepared as possible."
Likewise, the administration is laying the groundwork for an unusual level of access to the Treasury Department and other agencies involved in attempts to stabilize the foundering economy. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Friday that Treasury is preparing office space that will allow Obama aides to sit alongside current administration officials.
Fratto said such efforts are intended to send a signal that Treasury's approach will not change too abruptly when Obama takes office. "They don't want to surprise markets; they want to try to make sure that they have predictable information for markets," he said.
Bush and Obama are scheduled to meet at the White House tomorrow, after a long and tough campaign in which Obama's chief charge was that a vote for Republican rival John McCain would be a vote for a third Bush term.
The rhetoric has cooled since Tuesday, and Bolten said the president takes it in stride when he has "had some bad stuff said about him."
"He understands it's a rough-and-tumble game, and he doesn't let it interfere with his personal relationships or his judgment about what's best for the country," Bolten said.
Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, who has been involved in presidential transitions since the Eisenhower administration, is among those who are impressed by the efforts.
"I'm not sure I've ever seen an outgoing administration work as hard at saying the right thing," Hess said in an interview Friday. "This is really quite memorable."
Hess and other experts agreed that the times demand cooperation. "I think it's the most dire set of circumstances I can recall in looking at presidential transitions," said Charles O. Jones, who studies the transfer of power. He and others compare Obama's challenge to Franklin D. Roosevelt's in 1932, or even Abraham Lincoln's in 1860.
Jones, of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, said Bush's organized approach to the transition is smoothing the way and "may be one of the more positive features to his chief-executive-officer approach to the office."
It might also be a reflection of Bush's hectic arrival in office in early 2001. The disputed 2000 election meant that Democrat Al Gore did not concede the race until mid-December, giving Bush and his staff about five weeks to formally prepare for the takeover.
That delay, combined with a slow pace of appointments and confirmations in Congress, had a tangible impact on how quickly the Bush administration got up to speed, according to former officials and outside experts.
The 9/11 Commission concluded in its 2004 report that widespread vacancies and a slow pace of appointments undercut the government's national security apparatus before the terrorist attacks, and the commission recommended an accelerated clearance process for future administrations, much of which has been implemented into law.
"I think that Bush sees this as an important part of his legacy and really believes that how you go out is a good measure of who you are," said Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who is advising the transition panel.
Most experts, though, say the problem with transitions usually is not the outgoing administration but the incoming team.
"They've just done this amazing thing -- they've gotten elected president! -- and they're sort of full of themselves," said Hess, adding that an incoming administration often has an unfortunate mix of "arrogance and ignorance."
But, again, the experts are impressed so far. Obama "seems to have understood more than most how to prepare for the presidency," Hess said.
Despite heavy criticism from McCain that Obama was presumptively "measuring the drapes" in the White House before being elected, he set up a transition operation headed by John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
Hess said Obama ignored the conventional wisdom to "not mention the transition, or else people will think you're actually preparing to be president."
Within three days of his election, Obama announced a full transition team and named a chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who brings congressional and White House experience.
Obama seems determined to avoid some of the mistakes of the last Democrat to hold the office; Clinton's transition after his 1992 election is considered one of the most chaotic in recent times. Obama held a news conference Friday that ensured his first public comments as president-elect were focused on his top priority, the economy. Clinton generally avoided reporters, and his first impromptu remarks to the media, on gays in the military at a Veterans Day event, set his administration off on a divisive sidetrack.
That said, there are many hazards ahead for the Obama transition, and ill-fated or poorly executed nominations for Cabinet positions are only one.
Many decisions about the economy cannot wait for Obama to take office on Jan. 20, and despite the efforts at cooperation, the president and the president-elect are hardly in agreement.
Fratto and other White House aides have emphasized that Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and other senior administration officials will still have the final call on decisions about financial rescue efforts. "He certainly will want to take into account what the next administration thinks about the actions that he's taken," Fratto said, referring to Paulson. "But those are decisions that he's going to have to make on his own based on what he's hearing."
A financial summit among world leaders Saturday in Washington could bring out the differences in sharp relief, although Bolten pledges cooperation.
"We are trying to coordinate as closely as we can with the Obama folks so that they are at a minimum apprised and hopefully completely on board with the strategy that we're pursuing, because this summit is really only the first in a series," Bolten said.
Paul C. Light, a transition expert at New York University who said Obama's challenge makes FDR's transition "seem less daunting by comparison," expects other problems.
The Bush White House has a "well-deserved reputation for secrecy," Light said, which he expects to come into conflict with the desire of the Obama team for classified information, ongoing policy memoranda and ways to "penetrate the day-to-day workings of the administration."
"Obama is going to want more access than Bush is willing to give," Light said.
He said there is also a natural friction as the Obama team begins the search for regulations and executive orders it wants to overturn as quickly as possible, and as Bush policymakers try to find ways to make their impact more permanent. There is understandable suspicion on both sides, he said.
For now, however, he agrees with the other experts on the high level of cordiality on both sides.
"It really is a nice moment for the United States to show how the transfer of power goes," he said.