The Obama Transition and the Importance of Getting It Right

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Today’s Washington Post has a fascinating chart that details how differently various modern Presidents have gone about putting together their administrations.

What Obama advisers have told me is that his plan, which he has been working on since July, looks at the chaotic transition of Bill Clinton as the model of what not to do. Clinton, as the chart shows, did not make a single major appointment in the first six weeks after he was elected. And when he finally did, he put far more emphasis in bringing together a diverse and glamorous cabinet then he did in building a functional White House staff. That priority, in retrospect, was a backward one. Remember Clinton’s three tries at finding an Attorney General? And his blunder at making gays in the military the first major issue of his presidency–something that a disciplined White House operation would have avoided? Obama, it appears (at least initially), is following the more successful models of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, putting his initial priority on the White House operation.

It’s also heartening to see how closely and amicably the current White House is working with the incoming one to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. In a moment of economic crisis at home–and continued threat of terrorism from abroad–chaos is something the country simply cannot afford as it hands power from one administration to the next. And here, President Bush deserves enormous credit. As the Post also writes:

Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, who has been involved in presidential transitions since the Eisenhower administration, is among those who are impressed by the efforts.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an outgoing administration work as hard at saying the right thing,” Hess said in an interview Friday. “This is really quite memorable.”

Hess and other experts agreed that the times demand cooperation. “I think it’s the most dire set of circumstances I can recall in looking at presidential transitions,” said Charles O. Jones, who studies the transfer of power. He and others compare Obama’s challenge to Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s in 1932, or even Abraham Lincoln‘s in 1860.

Jones, of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, said Bush’s organized approach to the transition is smoothing the way and “may be one of the more positive features to his chief-executive-officer approach to the office.”

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