If Mitt Romney wins today there will be a dash to assemble key administration figures, devise a strategy for dealing with the fiscal cliff and sequestration and begin to plot out the first few months of the presidency. Let’s look at five big decisions Mitt Romney will have to make if he prevails.
1. The chief of staff. Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, I am told, has an inside track for the slot although is not a lock. On the surface, a Utah governor close to Romney would seem a natural fit. But there would be strong objections to Leavitt, most especially from the base which views him as an advocate of the individual mandate. If Romney picks him, he’ll be asking for an instant fight with conservatives. In addition, Leavitt has never held a White House position (cabinet posts are different animals ) nor served in Congress, a drawback for a White House that will have a huge legislative agenda and need to hit the ground running. Other potential hires: Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) who has become a valued adviser to Romney and has the White House and legislative experience Leavitt lacks; Ed Gillespie, who helped turn the campaign around and has White House experience, is another possibility. Whoever the pick is, expect him to be named within a couple of days.
2. The fiscal cliff/sequestration. Romney will, as he has said during the campaign, push to put both the sequestration cuts and the Bush tax cut expiration off until he can get into office, propose his own policies and thrash it out with the new Congress. Will Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) go along? Much depends on what the composition of the Senate will be and how endangered the members on the 2014 ballot feel. It is very likely that with the alternative being a fiscal meltdown and more bond rating anxiety, a six-month extension could be arranged.
3. The foreign policy team. With the Iran threat looming, the Libya debacle still unexplained and the ongoing uncertainty in the Middle East, Romney, I suspect within a week, will have his secretaries of State and Defense as well as his national security adviser lined up. They will have to work as a team so the relationship among the three is as critical as each member. (This is especially true in the Romney orbit where cordiality is prized.) One very possible trio: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) at State, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) at the Pentagon and Richard Williamson at NSC. Look out however for a Pentagon guru as a surprise pick for Defense. Given the sequestration threat, the budget strains and the need to rework and rethink our defense posture in critical areas like China, it is very possible someone like former assistant defense secretary Mary Beth Long or Air Force vet and NSC veteran Heather Wilson could fill that post and address Romney’s concerns about diversity.
4. What to do first? Romney will need to decide whether to put together a grand bargain of his own (complete with tax, spending and entitlement reform) to push through Congress in one large gulp. A new president has the most mojo at the start of his term and a big, bipartisan victory would set the tone for the rest of Romney’s term. However, it may not be practical to put everything on the table at once. In that case the sequence of measures becomes critical: Tax reform or entitlement reform first? A pro-jobs energy bill up front? The choices here depend largely on how Republican and how cooperative a Senate Romney will have. Like Obama, he’ll need to consider what items (Obamacare waivers, XL Pipeline approval, etc.) he can do by executive order. Speaking of which, which Obama executive orders does he repeal?
5. The Ryan relationship. Romney selected Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) because he is precisely the right person to deal with intertwined, complex budget and fiscal reform issues. Will Ryan be at Romney’s side in a collaborative relationship or will he be given discrete assignments, such as working hand-in-glove with the new director of the Office of Management and Budget? Is Ryan (not unlike VP Joe Biden) the immediate go-between for the White House in shaping a grand bargain with Congress? Look for Ryan to pull together a first-class staff that will enable him to keep an eye on Congress, the federal bureaucracy and the conservative base. To be the most important player in the administration next to the president, he’ll need a coterie of advisers up to the task.
Of course, Romney needs to win first. If he doesn’t, Obama will face many of the same issues, although his personnel and policy decisions would be dramatically different.