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Transition Signals a Centrist Approach in Obama White House

Barack Obama with nominees Hilda L. Solis, Karen Mills, Ray LaHood and Ron Kirk last month. He is ahead of schedule on filling his Cabinet.
Barack Obama with nominees Hilda L. Solis, Karen Mills, Ray LaHood and Ron Kirk last month. He is ahead of schedule on filling his Cabinet. (By Ann Ryan -- Pool Via Getty Images)

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

If history is any guide, the 77-day transition period between the election and Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president provides an early road map to what the Obama presidency will look like, in both style and substance.

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Just as Bill Clinton's chaotic preparations for taking office foreshadowed an occasional lack of discipline in the White House, and as George W. Bush's -- begun before the Florida recount ended -- laid the groundwork for a pattern of Oval Office decisiveness, Obama has strongly signaled an administration that will be more centrist than his campaign but that will have a hard time duplicating one of the campaign's cardinal tenets: "no drama."

Obama sought a swift, seamless transition, and in the first few weeks after winning the election Nov. 4, he largely achieved it. Then the glitches began. From the public embarrassment of leaks, a nominee's tax-return errors and losing one of his Cabinet picks -- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at the Commerce Department -- to the more private ripples of complaints from members of Congress, Obama suffered his share of what he describes as "bumps" over the past 2 1/1 months.

Yet the problems have largely evaporated, and his transition has generally been hailed as a success, in part because of a deep reservoir of public support but also because the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has muted traditional partisan sniping.

And now, Obama will take office on what appears to be a continued honeymoon -- with, by most accounts, including his own, several achievements already under his belt.

"Early on, maybe we made it look too easy," Obama said in an interview last week with reporters and editors of The Washington Post. "I think people should just remember what we have accomplished here: We put a Cabinet and White House staff in place in record time in the midst of the biggest emergency since World War II. [We] operationalized that team to produce mammoth legislation that we have essentially been helping Congress to drive three weeks before I am even sworn in. That's a pretty good track record."

He continued: "In terms of the bumps, I actually think the bumps have been magnified precisely because, I think, we have done an outstanding job."

In a sharp departure from the campaign, which was run by a tightly knit circle of loyalists with little high-level government experience, many of Obama's closest advisers now are veterans of the Clinton administration. His Cabinet includes a prominent Bush administration holdover, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Obama has reached out to conservatives and Republicans in other ways, as well -- nominating former congressman Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) as his transportation secretary; inviting evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give his inaugural invocation; insisting that his stimulus package include tax cuts; dining at the home of conservative commentator George F. Will -- in what some of his supporters see as an effort to generate an early stockpile of goodwill among his opponents.

But those moves have also left some of his liberal supporters concerned that Obama is not as squarely in their corner as they had hoped, and have revived a familiar question from the days of the presidential campaign: What, exactly, will change look like?

To some moderates, Obama has embodied change during the transition as he did during the race, by refusing to talk or act in openly partisan ways -- even though, given the size of his election victory, he could have. "It's been a brilliant transition; I think it could extend the honeymoon," said Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), a Blue Dog Democrat. "He showed great centrism, and he's been living his post-partisan politics. So I'm hearing sincere compliments from very unlikely places. He's managed to retain his idealism and show great practical political moves."

Yet Obama would not be the first president to claim a post-partisan vantage point or to insist that he, for the first time, will conduct business differently. And while his advisers insist he is not favoring one end of the ideological spectrum over another -- John D. Podesta, the head of the transition, said his central criteria for hiring was simply "who could get the job done" -- he has given the more liberal wing of his party some reason to worry, just as it did upon Clinton's arrival in 1993. Some, such as Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), said they hoped to see Obama stake out more progressive, daring stands (in McGovern's case, on the issue of hunger, his top priority).


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