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Books: 'What Do We Do Now?'

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Stephen Hess
Staffer and Adviser, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter Administrations
Thursday, November 6, 2008; 12:00 PM

Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus Stephen Hess -- author of "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect" -- will be online Thursday, Nov. 6 at noon ET to explain and take questions on the process of transitioning between presidential administrations.

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Transition Memo to the President-Elect (Post, Nov. 6)

The transcript follows.

Hess was a staffer in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and an adviser to the Ford and Carter administrations, and is a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

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Stephen Hess: Hello, I'm Steve Hess. I'm at the Brookings Institution and George Washington University, and I've just written a book, "What Do We Do Now?" that comes out tomorrow. It takes the president through Election Day to Inauguration Day covering all the decisions he has to make in those 77 days, up to and including which desk he should choose (he has four to pick from or can even bring his own, as Lyndon Johnson did). So I look forward to your questions and will answer them as best I can, or will try to tell you where to go to find out.

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Alexandria, Va.: Amen to your advice about not reorganizing immediately. I would add that the new president not downsize either. As a political appointee in the Clinton administration, we immediately initiated an across-the-board 10 percent elimination of jobs without giving any consideration to what people actually were doing in those jobs. This ridiculous decision not only eliminated some good people and positions, it also incurred a whole lot of bad blood within the departments. We never really recovered from this bad decision.

Stephen Hess: The hopeful sign there, I think is the way Sen. Obama replied in the debate to Sen. McCain's proposal to cut across the board -- he said hey, wait, you cut where you need to cut, you don't cut good programs. So I assume he'd bring that philosophy into the broader arena of government personnel.

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College Park, Md.: How would you rate Obama on Fred I. Greenstein's six scales: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence?

Stephen Hess: I very much admire that book and consider it required reading if you're going to be a president-watcher. Obviously that's a way to rate presidents who already have been president. It's somewhat less useful for rating people who haven't served their terms yet, and obviously there's no school for presidents. So I think that, aside from communication, where Obama clearly has superior skills, we'll have to take a pass on this for the time being. I think -- and I think Greenstein agrees with me -- that what I call emotional wellness is possibly most important. Ultimately it makes the difference between a president who succeeds in a crisis and one who fails.

"Emotional wellness" is really the psychological makeup, what's inside the person when he has to respond to crisis. In my own experience what worried me was that Richard Nixon -- whose staff I was on -- was a very very smart person, the cognitive skills were there. But when we checked out the wiring, we found the wires were crossed. This made the difference between a great president and one who ultimately failed.

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Washington: I liked your piece this morning, but I noticed that in a similar missive to the future secretary of State, Larry Eagleburger said loyalty to the president trumps all, referencing a former secretary of State who wanted to serve in the second term who was forced out then ended up endorsing a rival (Powell?). Do you agree loyalty trumps all, or in the same way a president should be able to fire anyone, an appointee also should have distance?

Stephen Hess: Very few political appointees have resigned in protest, but the right exists, and it can be an obligation. You may recall for example when Bernard kalb resigned as Assistant Secretary of State in the Reagan administration. Several others in HHS resigned during Clinton's push at welfare reform. Some people stay in an administration thinking "it would be so much worse if I left," but ultimately people have to decide whether they will be loyal to the president and stay or if they are going to leave.

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College Park, Md.: So far, Emanuel (possibly) and Gibbs have been mentioned as part of the Obama team, and Podesta is running the transition team. I am aware Emanuel is a potentially polarizing figure in regards to Obama "reaching across the aisle," but what about Gibbs and Podesta? Which posts will Obama be able to fill with people admired by both Republicans and Democrats? Thanks.

Stephen Hess: We're simply going to have to see. What we're getting now is the fun and games of the transition period. We're flooded with names -- sometimes they're self-generated, candidates who find ways to get their names in circulation, and sometimes it's just media speculation, journalists going out and asking a lot of people who don't know either. I always go back to Ronald Reagan's transition leader, Edwin Meese, who said that "people who talk don't know, and people who know don't talk." So we'll know soon enough, and then's the time to deconstruct.

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Washington: Please please please tell me that President-Elect Obama will not make John Kerry secretary of State. I can't think of many worse choices than putting him there. He's a know-it-all, and is far too pompous. There have to be better options.

Stephen Hess: Clearly sometimes the reason to send a name up the flag pole is to see exactly who salutes. In a sense the Kerry name has gone out and you have registered comment. In some ways that's useful -- it's noticed by those who are in the inner circle and are putting together the cabinet.

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Washington: Question: Given that the new administration is legally prohibited from moving, reassigning or otherwise readjusting the Senior Executive Service for the first 120 days of the administration, and that most independent commissioners (FTC, FCC, SEC, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Federal Reserve governors, etc.) have fixed, staggered terms, is it likely that President Obama is involuntarily wedded to the existing government as he finds it?

Stephen Hess: The government is like an escalator -- we don't stop it for a new president to jump on. There are a lot of commitments in place -- treaties, budgets -- in addition to these SES and term-appointed people. To a degree this is a system every president inherits. In my book I have a little section on the importance of the president-elect and the president in his early period involving the political appointees with the permanent government, especially at the SES and GS-15 levels. Those are the positions where the bureaucracy rubs up against political appointees, and where the appointees too often look upon permanent staff as an enemy, and should discover through formal interactions how much they have to offer, how much they know about an agency's relationships with Congress, for example.

That's in part what I'm trying to do in "What Do We Do Now?", taking a new president through his basic job duties and decisions, including introductions to the permanent government.

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Bowie, Md.: Seeing as a top priority has to be increasing the average American's faith in the financial sector, what job would you give Andrew Tobias, who is the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, and author of "The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need"?

Stephen Hess: All I can say is "see previous answer." I'm not in a position to give or to deny. I'm a person who has written a book largely for a president elect if he could take an hour, not to help him on economic policy or international relations, but just on the variety of decisions -- mostly process decisions -- that he's going to have to make in the next 10 weeks.

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Falls Church, Va.: Why would the Obama team publicize their pick of Emanuel without being sure that he would accept? Did they do it to reassure Blue Dogs and moderate Republicans that they were making a moderate choice, even if Emanuel turns it down?

Stephen Hess: I obviously don't know what happened here. For a campaign that was so incredibly disciplined and had so few leaks, I must assume this information didn't come from the Obama side of the equation. Whatever happened is not helpful to a flawless transition.

In my book I say that the one job that the candidate should offer and have acceptance before the election is Chief of Staff, which means he should be in a position to announce that as soon as he is elected. The fact that it would appear he made the offer and it hasn't yet been accepted suggests several things. If Emanuel turns down the offer, Obama gets his second choice, not who he really wanted. At the same time, the fact that Emanuel is taking his time considering the offer suggest he's got interests, including very important family interests, beyond Obama's interest in having him as chief of staff. So hopefully this is resolved quickly and highlights the need for transparency to explain to us what really happened.

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Alexandria, Va.: Now that we have elected an African American president, how long do you think it will be until we elect a woman president?

Stephen Hess: Well, given that in the year 1990, I actually had made a prediction that we'd have a woman president by the year 2000, I'm surprised we haven't gotten there yet. I think there's nothing standing in its way other than waiting for a person who the majority of her party and then the electorate think is the right person for that moment. In other words, I don't think it's an issue of gender any more, just the mix of political considerations that arise every fourth year.

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Aiea, Hawaii: Practical question: Where and how does one send resume for transition team consideration ... names, address/e-mail and format would be great to know

Stephen Hess: I would assume that there is a Web site up and running now. Go check it out for the campaign. The Obama campaign more brilliantly made use of the Internet than any other in history, I'd find it hard to believe that this information wouldn't already be up and available to you.

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But when we checked out the wiring, we found the wires were crossed.: Curious for clarification here?

Stephen Hess: Okay, fair enough. If you'll read the conversations that he had quietly with his apparatchiks like Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Colson, you will see that this was really a very paranoid, suspicious person. These fears and so forth ultimately resulted in creating events, such as the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, that ultimately forced his resignation.

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Washington: Generally, when does an incoming president need to have their White House appointments in place? And in Obama's case, will his White House and cabinet staff appointments need to be made much earlier?

Stephen Hess: In my book I had suggested that the major White House appointments should be made at least by Thanksgiving, and that the cabinet appointments should be made by Christmas. If it's a very well-prepared-for transition -- and given the work that Podesta and his team already has done, this may be -- you may be able to move those dates up again. But you have to keep in mind that there's an awful lot of work to do, and that this period coincides with the major holidays.

As I think I made clear from those deadlines, the key White House staff -- congressional relations director, chief speech writer, etc. -- the reason you have them in place so quickly is to get to all the other appointments you need. You need personnel people to find the candidates, lawyers to vet them, congressional folks to get them confirmed and so forth.

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Maryland: My advice: Pick the best man/woman for the job, not an old buddy who's just okay. Pick people who won't be afraid to tell you the truth and disagree if they think you are wrong. Pick people respected in their field. And adopt that puppy from a shelter!

Stephen Hess: It sounds like very good advice, and of course I agree with it. But then again, which president ever has said "I pick unqualified people, and only because they're buddies of mine or campaign contributors, etc." That raises a question, which is increasingly raised, about crossing party lines and choosing in his case Republicans. To me the basic question is, is that the best person for the job? But I would not pick someone just because he's a Republican. That's a thrust I hear more and more -- that bipartisanship trumps everything else.

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Pittsburgh: Why is Rahm Emanuel playing coy instead of just taking the chief of staff job and getting on with it? What do you think he's negotiating for?

Stephen Hess: It's a question above my pay grade. There's no way I possibly could know that.

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Fairfax, Va.: Great advice in your column today -- but sometimes in government, most of the wasteful programs are already well known, and he could just step in, gut those and take his time with the rest. Trust me, everyone in government knows where the waste is.

Stephen Hess: You may be right. But I must say, I've never found a program where there aren't some people who are great enthusiasts for it. And I don't think you can gut a program solely on the basis of word of mouth. I do hope that before he takes any actions, he makes sure to do enough serious investigation to justify the action.

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Richmond, Va.: Two words, David Gergen. Get Gergen in there as an adviser. He's a neutral, bipartisan, straight-talking guy who has been on both Republican and Democratic administrations. Hi has tons of experience is well-respected.

Stephen Hess: He's a friend of mine, and I share your high regard for him.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Maybe this is the wrong chat to ask, but did Obama spend all his $? If not what can he do with it?

Stephen Hess: That's an exceptionally good question, which I would like the answer to as well. I assuming that there will be money left over after all the bills are paid, and that he will have some control over how it's used or where it's sent.

I should add that as we enter this transition period, there will be expenses that will have to be raised for all the inaugural activities -- the balls and parades and such. So we probably haven't reached the end of the fundraising period yet.

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Cumberland, Md.: How important is diversity in Obama's picks?

Stephen Hess: Several of the charts in my book show how we came -- particularly in cabinet selection -- from Eisenhower and Kennedy's initial all white, male cabinets, over time to increased women and people of color in those positions. A very important stop along the way was Bill Clinton virtually making it a condition that he wanted a cabinet that reflected America, and did choose a cabinet in which a majority were not males of European origin. That happened to be true, too, of the original cabinet of George W. Bush. Clearly with Barack Obama, we're not going to go backward -- diversity will be important, I'm sure. Now, what happens on the cabinet level -- the 15 cabinet secretaries and a few other positions -- you can add to your diversity by adding to your cabinet. There's nothing in the Constitution that says what size it has to be. Many times the U.N. ambassador is added; Bush added the EPA administrator. Clinton added the Small Business Administration. So many times you help your administration along toward diversity by adding to those offices you consider to be of cabinet rank.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What kind of issues would you say Obama should pick to highlight in his first days in power to lay the foundations for his political legacy? How should he set the tone and tempo of his administration, given the enormous problems he has inherited?

Stephen Hess: My book, which as it says is a "workbook," continues exercises for the president, the first is "write down your five most important campaign promises." While that seems juvenile, if Bill Clinton had done that in '92, he wouldn't have stumbled into his gays-in-the-military problem. That was a commitment, but not a top-tier commitment up there with "it's the economy stupid." Once you've got those sorted out, you have to figure out short-term versus long-term commitments, you should make that very clear, early on, so that there's no disappointment. At the same time, because it's good to get off to a fast start, it's good to have commitments that are very doable, achievable with the stroke of a pen -- the stem-cell issue perhaps. In the reality -- and the American people have made this very clear -- everything takes a back seat to getting the economy back on track.

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Princeton, N.J.: The AP has just called North Carolina for Obama, giving him 364 electoral votes. Bush said he had a mandate with 271. Can Obama govern as though he has a mandate?

Stephen Hess: In a sense a president Constitutionally has a mandate as soon as he wins and takes the oath of office -- but there's no doubt that the bigger the landslide, the more power it gives a president in dealing with other vested groups. So this is a very big win. It's the difference, for example, between John F. Kennedy in 1960, who barely got to the presidency, which he felt kept him from doing some things he wanted to do, to Barack Obama breezing to the presidency now with the opportunity to do what he wants to do.

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Washington: What would positions would you see Obama appointing Republicans to (or keeping them at)?

Stephen Hess: There's no way I could judge that. The only one at the moment in which there's perhaps a head of steam behind it, is the idea of keeping Gates for secretary of Defense. To do that means in part that Obama doesn't feel anyone in his own party is as capable for the position. It also means that while he is recognizing someone who has done very well, he's also recognizing someone who has supporting many policies that were Bush's, not necessarily Obama's. Aside from that, there are some Republicans who have some interest across the aisle -- Sens. Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel are the two most-mentioned.

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Washington: Throughout history, what transition would you say is as equally challenging as this one will be for Obama?

Stephen Hess: We always think that our times are the darkest ever. I can remember during the Vietnam War, when I was chairman of the White House conference on youth and spent time on college campuses and was asked "has there every been a time like this?" Well, imagine 1860, when a war of brother against brother was pending. Or think about 1932, when there wasn't just a recession but a Depression and there were bread lines and soup kitchens. So I don't mean to minimize what's going on now, but this country has faced much, much more devastating situations in the past.

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Stephen Hess: This is the first time I've done anything like this -- it has been a lot of fun. A lot of the questions have stretched me and a lot of them I'll think about and sometime about 2 a.m. I'll say "now I've got the answer!" But I thank you for being interested in what I have to say. I guess I'll have to end with a little plug, and say that if it interests you, at least go to your library and see if I wrote anything else you might be interested in in my book "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect." I don't think that's too blatant! I enjoyed writing it, and I certainly hope you enjoy reading it.

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