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.
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).
"Overall, it's gone pretty smoothly, but at the end of the day I think what a lot of us really want is for him to succeed, and we do want change," McGovern said. "We do want things to be different. We want there to be a focus on a different set of priorities."
Obama, who has sought to elude political definition since his early days as a candidate, described his almost fully formed Cabinet as having the "right blend of innovation versus old hands," and he reiterated that change will emanate from him, not from his inner circle.
"I was never of the belief that the way you bring about change is to not hire anybody who knows how things work, and to start from scratch and completely reinvent the wheel," he said. "I'm the one who brings change. It is my vision. It is my agenda. It is the one that we talked about during the campaign and those millions of people voted for. But I want some good mechanics who know how to run the system based on the goals and the vision that I set."
As for ideology, he said: "Part of what we're trying to eliminate is thinking through that lens."
Obama's style over the past 2 1/2 months was crisp and quick, both in making appointments and in cutting off problems before they escalated, his senior advisers said in interviews. Though Obama lauded Podesta for the smooth running of the transition ("He doesn't like to get credit, but John Podesta deserves credit here in terms of having helped structure our transition in an outstanding way," he said last week), his advisers, not surprisingly, said the big decisions came straight from the president-elect.
Several Cabinet picks were entirely Obama's doing, made before his transition team presented him with any candidates, and came from having a "gut feeling" about the people, one senior adviser said. Timothy F. Geithner, Obama's choice for Treasury secretary, was someone with whom he just clicked, his advisers said, even before the election (Geithner and Lawrence H. Summers waged a fierce battle for the position, aides said, with the latter ultimately being placed in a secondary role as national economic adviser).
Obama requested LaHood for his Cabinet because they were friends from Illinois, advisers said. He had a comfort level with Eric H. Holder Jr. and knew early on that he wanted to hire him for something, eventually choosing him to lead the Justice Department.
His first -- and arguably most startling -- major decision was to select Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as his secretary of state, an idea that he had before the election and that he put on the table in his first post-election meeting in Chicago on Nov. 5, several advisers said. Obama never wanted Clinton for any other post and did not seriously consider any other candidates for the top diplomatic job, they said.
Acquiring Clinton required Obama to look past immediate questions about her husband's foundation work, not to mention the acrimony of the Democratic primary campaign. And it meant a degree of patience: For Clinton, there were obvious drawbacks to taking on a new, travel-heavy job, including an end to her stable life as a senator and her remaining campaign debt, which she would not be able to retire once becoming secretary. Obama was "patient," one transition aide said. "He understood it as a senator" and did not push Clinton to accept right away.
Every potential obstacle was met with reassurance from Obama that it could be resolved. Helping matters further was a long-standing relationship between Podesta and Cheryl Mills, the Clinton consigliere who handled her interactions with the Obama team (and whose relations with Obama campaign manager David Plouffe had not always been smooth).
Obama had to cajole other candidates to set aside their concerns about certain jobs, too. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano had expressed a desire to be attorney general before Obama chose her to head the Department of Homeland Security, several advisers said. Retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, who is the incoming national security adviser, had concerns about the configuration of that position. In both cases, Obama allayed their worries, saying he would fix any problems.
"There were people who, for very good reasons -- who had great careers where they were -- may have been initially reluctant to take this leap toward change, and he understood that," said Valerie Jarrett, an Obama confidante. "And therefore he was patient so he could get what he wanted."
Jarrett added: "I can say this from personal experience: It's just very hard to say no to the president-elect, not just because he's the president-elect but because he has this warmth and sincerity." Obama was able, she said, to convince people that joining the administration is "about a broader mission than just what you might want to do, and he's really adept at convincing people to do what he wants them to do, which should serve him well as president."
There may be a familiarity to his Cabinet, but Obama has received little criticism from supporters who had hoped his administration would look dramatically different from previous ones.
Nor has he faced public complaints from officials who backed him during the primary, only to discover that he would pick Clinton loyalists for his Cabinet. A running joke among young Obama staffers, according to one, was: "If you wanted Obama to win for president, you should have worked on his campaign, but if you wanted to work for him, you should have worked for Hillary."
If friendly fire has been mostly muted, Obama has already had to summon his personal charm in dealing with Congress. When news leaked that he had chosen Leon E. Panetta to lead the CIA -- unbeknownst to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the incoming head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence -- Obama and several members of his inner circle, including Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., spent the better part of a day offering apologies.
After the announcement that Obama had given Rick Warren the plum assignment of delivering the inaugural convocation, outraged gay and lesbian groups protested, citing the Saddleback Church pastor's stance on homosexuality, which he has compared to incest. Obama's team did not back down from the decision. But quietly, members of his inner circle reached out to the supporters he had upset. Within a few weeks, they were "working on it," said Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group. "They certainly have been willing to have conversations" about how the choice disturbed gay men and lesbians, she said, declining to elaborate further. "That's an important step."
When it came to cutting loose Bill Richardson from his nomination as commerce secretary, the Obama team did so without hesitation, although it allowed the announcement to come from Richardson himself. The New Mexico governor had known from the outset that he was under investigation for his business dealings -- there were even news accounts of the probe -- but the inquiry appeared to grow more serious over the course of the presidential transition.
"It was a blessing in disguise, because it prevented a bigger disaster," one close Obama supporter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the official Obama stance is that Richardson would still be welcome in the administration someday.
The Obama team is now declaring victory for the second time in three months: ahead of schedule with its Cabinet nominations, on track to break earlier records for Senate-confirmed jobs, with a goal of having as many as 150 such positions filled by March (the previous record was 24).
"We'll be light-years beyond what previous administrations have been able to do," Podesta said Friday, as he was finishing his tenure as director of the transition team. As for Obama himself, Podesta said: "If you take both the way he's performed and the way he's begun to structure his government, he's been incredibly open and available."