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.
Obama will have to decide by January 2010 whether to reappoint Bernanke. The decision could hinge on a number of factors, including how the economy does in the coming year, whether the two men develop a good rapport, Obama's view on whether Bernanke should have been more aggressive in preventing a crisis and how eager Obama is to put a Democrat in the job.A Troop Withdrawal Debate
On Thursday, Mullen sent a note to his staff members, urging them to assist the Obama team. "Transitions of administrations have in the past proven challenging and even awkward," he wrote. "Our duty will be to remain apolitical."
As Obama's chief military adviser for at least the next year, Mullen will lay out options for Iraq and Afghanistan, define the global risks the military faces, weigh the strain on the force and advise on budget priorities. Mullen moved early to create a Joint Staff transition team for the handover period. "My goal is to be foundational -- and sort of a rock during that change," he said in October 2007.
On the two wars, Mullen's views align broadly with those of the president-elect: He sees an urgent need to devote more troops and resources to Afghanistan, and he supports continuing troop reductions from Iraq. But there are also important differences: Although Obama has long cast Afghanistan as the only legitimate war to pursue in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mullen's priorities for that country are driven more by the escalating insurgency since 2006 than by any sense that Iraq is the wrong war for U.S. troops.
In Mullen's ranking of military priorities, Iraq takes precedence, then Afghanistan, followed by finding ways to reduce the overall strain on the nation's fighting forces. Unlike Obama, who pledges to withdraw U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by mid-2010, Mullen opposes any drawdown timeline there as "dangerous," saying reductions must depend on conditions on the ground.
Mullen's view coincides with that of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq who now heads U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for operations in both war zones.
Obama's relationship with Mullen and other military advisers could prove smooth and productive if Obama takes the pragmatic approach that his advisers are indicating, allowing each side to adjust at the margins, defense experts said. But if Obama presses for the withdrawal of two brigades per month, conflict is inevitable, they warn.
"That would be hard for Mullen, exceedingly hard for Petraeus, and almost impossible for [Gen. Ray] Odierno," who replaced Petraeus as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Peter D. Feaver, a national security official in the Clinton and Bush administrations and professor at Duke University. "That would be a civil-military crisis."
Petraeus, who has wielded great influence after his success overseeing the troop "surge" in Iraq, will remain a pivotal figure well into the Obama administration. His appointment as chief of Central Command lasts for three years. If Mullen is reappointed in 2009, Obama can decide on the next chairman in 2011, and Petraeus is considered one of the most highly qualified officers for that job.
"Petraeus will make every effort to avoid a confrontation. But he does have that independent credibility because he's been very successful, and because of the personal attacks by the left wing of the Democratic Party, where Obama came from, Obama will have to treat him very gingerly," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
During Petraeus's highly publicized congressional testimony in the fall of 2007, Obama, then campaigning for the Democratic nomination, criticized what he considered the shifting standards for the U.S. mission in Iraq. "We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation . . . is considered success," he said. "And it's not."
Although it may seem that Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war puts him at odds with Mullen and Petraeus, that overlooks the fact that many military officers were unsure about the war at the outset, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. And there is considerable agreement with Obama that there needs to be a greater emphasis on diplomacy, civilian aid and counterinsurgency techniques to augment conventional military action.
"You're going to see a lot more sympathy than you might expect between Obama and his chief military advisers," Moran said.
Mullen has only briefly met Obama, said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen. But Mullen's portfolio, which includes global strategy as well as strains on the force, encompasses all military issues Obama must address.
Obama made those global demands clear after a two-hour briefing in July in Baghdad by Petraeus, who reportedly assembled a slew of maps, charts and PowerPoint slides to argue against a 16-month timetable for withdrawing most troops from Iraq. An intense exchange followed, during which Obama emphasized that as president he would not "rubber-stamp" the recommendations of a ground commander, and that he would consider a range of factors beyond the conditions in one country or region.
"Sometimes it is appropriate for the president to overrule a military commander," Feaver said. "Obama's statement was spot on."From 9/11 to Local Crime
Mueller took over as FBI director days before terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Since then, he has scrambled to reorient the bureau toward domestic intelligence gathering.
Mueller, a Justice Department official under George H.W. Bush, has had little contact with Obama -- and, at first glance, a former constitutional law professor such as Obama and a FBI man may seem unlikely to have much in common. But Mueller is known to many of Obama's advisers, including campaign co-chairman Eric H. Holder Jr. While U.S. attorney in the District, Holder hired Mueller as chief of the homicide section and later sent him to shore up the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco.
Behind the scenes, Mueller has pushed back on some of the more controversial legal policy decisions during the George W. Bush years. In 2004, along with other senior Justice officials, Mueller was prepared to resign over the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. He removed FBI agents from interrogation sessions of terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba after hearing allegations of abuse.
Obama will have direct contact with Mueller at weekly threat briefings, during which he will receive raw intelligence about terrorist movements. Though few FBI directors have lasted their full 10-year terms, Mueller has given no public indications of planning to leave government.
In some areas, Mueller has signaled agreement with Obama's priorities. In a rarity among Bush administration officials, Mueller has backed calls by local and state police for more resources to combat traditional crimes. During the campaign, Obama called for more funds to support such authorities, and he and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. said they would consider additional funding to hire more FBI agents to shore up ordinary criminal enforcement.
But the FBI may part company with Obama on other issues. Mueller has championed new guidelines, set to take effect Dec. 1, that give agents pursuing terrorism leads the power to conduct long-term surveillance of suspects, engage in pretext interviews in which agents conceal their identities and infiltrate groups that the FBI thinks may threaten national security. Obama has not spoken out on the guidelines, which have roiled civil-liberties advocates, but has indicated support for a new domestic intelligence czar who would provide more oversight of the FBI's intelligence operations.
As an Illinois state senator, Obama helped pass a law that required taping law enforcement interviews with suspects in death-penalty cases. FBI agents have resisted an across-the-board requirement for interview taping.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he foresees Obama pushing the FBI to put more resources into white-collar crimes linked to the financial meltdown, as well as hate crimes. Davis also predicted that the two men would agree on the need to involve Congress more in such debates than has been the case under Bush.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he found it hard to imagine any intransigence among holdover officials under an Obama administration. "Do we expect them not to be like everyone else and say no to this person who has an overwhelming mandate?" he said. "He's president-elect of the United States . . . It bodes well for anyone who works for the administration to give their opinion -- to make sure it's a sound opinion and voice it."
Staff writers Neil Irwin and Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.