Sometimes Continuity Trumps Change

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By Alec MacGillis and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 10, 2008

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to fill top positions for his incoming government, he faces a stubborn reality: Some of the key individuals he will rely upon to tackle the country's most serious challenges are holdovers from the current administration -- a trio of Bush appointees who will likely stay in place for at least the first year or two of Obama's presidency.

In confronting the financial crisis and weakening economy, Obama must turn to Ben S. Bernanke, a Republican and former chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, who will lead the Federal Reserve for at least the first year of the new administration.

In assuming control of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama must work with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was appointed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for a two-year term that will end in late 2009 and, by tradition, can expect to be appointed for a second term as the president's top military adviser. Mullen shares Obama's belief in focusing more on Afghanistan but is wary of a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

And in guarding against terrorist attacks -- while correcting what he considers the Bush administration's excesses -- Obama will rely upon FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, whose term expires in 2011.

Obama has made it a point of pride to seek consensus with those who do not fully agree with him, and he is even considering keeping Gates at the Pentagon to ensure a smooth transition. But the need to rely heavily on officials who served in the Bush administration -- an era from which he promises a sharp break -- underscores his constraints. His campaign's success was based partly on the selection of a team he personally trusted, but in his first years in the White House, he will not be able to rely solely on advisers of his choosing.

"It's a challenge," but not an insurmountable one, said William A. Galston, a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. Bernanke, Mullen and Mueller "appear to be genuinely public-spirited civil servants and not rabid partisans," he said, adding that "if you're thinking about how to deal with someone like J. Edgar Hoover, this is not what we're talking about."

And Obama might be uniquely suited to the task, said Galston, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution. "This is not someone who feels comfortable [only if] he has constructed his own cocoon around him. We've had presidents like that, but he's not one of them. His life has trained him to move through different environments and adjust accordingly."

The Fed's Consensus Builder

Few officials will be as pivotal in Obama's first years in office as Bernanke, a leading authority on the Great Depression who is helping lead the country through a likely recession.

Bernanke was appointed by Bush to a four-year term that began in early 2006, under a system designed to keep the Fed independent from political pressure. But the Fed chairman also serves as the economist in chief, routinely meeting with the president to offer advice and collaborating closely with the Treasury secretary.

Obama and Bernanke have spoken on the phone several times, and met in person once, at Obama's request. In that meeting, held in Bernanke's office, Obama stressed that he respects the independence of the Fed. That suggests he will follow the recent precedent, set by Clinton and Bush, of not jawboning the central bank toward his preferred monetary policy, as aides to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did.

There is reason to think Obama and Bernanke will get along. Although Bernanke is a Republican, his response to the financial crisis has won him plaudits from congressional Democrats who view him as pragmatic and non-ideological. The former Princeton professor has a calm manner, a penchant for building consensus and unquestioned academic expertise, qualities valued by Obama.

Finally, the top candidates to be Treasury secretary have strong relationships with Bernanke. Lawrence H. Summers, who held the position for part of the Clinton administration, has known Bernanke for decades. And Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has been among Bernanke's closest collaborators during the financial crisis; they speak by phone many times each day and more than a few times have spoken through the night.

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