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Obama's Good Start

By David S. Broder
Thursday, November 13, 2008

So far, so good.

The first week of Barack Obama's transition to the presidency has gone about as well as anyone could imagine. His few public appearances have been gaffe-free, and his initial decisions in setting up his administration have been strongly reassuring.

One area of legitimate questions about the president-elect concerns his ability to organize, direct and motivate his administration. Nothing in his prior life in Illinois or Washington required or tested those skills. His campaign -- a model of efficiency and innovation -- certainly augured well. But there is a world of difference between running for the White House and leading the country -- witness the stumbles of every new president since Ronald Reagan.

What we have seen so far suggests that Obama's skills will carry over to his new and expanded responsibilities. His victory speech in Grant Park, his first news conference and his meeting with President Bush went off almost without a hitch.

He wisely emphasized that all executive authority -- on issues here and abroad -- remains in Bush's hands until Jan. 20, but at the same time he urged the president and Congress to do everything in their power to address the sinking economy.

The new president's first decision -- to name Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff -- was a positive step on two levels.

It is significant that Obama began structuring his White House staff before he turned to the construction of a Cabinet. Bill Clinton did the reverse and paid a high price for it. Clinton dawdled in filling the Cabinet jobs, preoccupied with achieving racial, ethnic and gender diversity. It was almost Inauguration Day before he told his campaign aides what jobs they were getting in the White House.

Many of the early decisions were mishandled, and Clinton created the impression that individual department chiefs would do more to set policy than the president. Cabinet government is a familiar concept, but it is not practical when so many issues require coordination across bureaucratic lines.

Clinton's second mistake was giving the chief-of-staff job to Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, his boyhood friend from Arkansas. McLarty was a novice in Washington and -- by his own declaration -- ill-suited to the job. It took Clinton months to correct the error.

By contrast, Emanuel is a Washington veteran, having served first as a senior legislative-political-press aide to Clinton and, more recently, as a Chicago congressman, a key member of the party's House leadership.

Emanuel is a volatile personality. When he was in the White House the first time, he was a shouter. When angry about something that I'd written about Clinton, which he often was, his protest calls were so high-decibel that I often found myself holding the phone at arm's length, just to spare my eardrums.

But Emanuel has calmed down a lot -- at least in my experience. In the past four years, I have found him responsive and remarkably smart in his assessments of national and congressional politics. He is as serious about policy as he is about politics, and while he waited a long time before endorsing Obama out of loyalty to Bill and Hillary Clinton, he clearly has earned the trust of the new president.

Some Republicans have complained publicly that Emanuel is too partisan to reflect Obama's professed desire to enlist the talents and help of both Republicans and Democrats. But I think that they are misreading his personality and that this view disregards the friendships he has built with GOP colleagues such as Rep. Ray LaHood of Peoria, Ill.

This is important, because the dire conditions that Obama inherits make it imperative that Washington not fall back into the partisan gridlock of the past few years.

Bush, to his credit, has set exactly the right tone for cooperation. And so has John McCain, who on his return to the Senate can be particularly helpful to Obama. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leaders, have also set the right tone in their early comments.

Many challenges lie ahead, but the start has been promising.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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