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Playing by the Book: Transitioning to the 44th Presidency

Charles O. Jones is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution and the author of many books including Passages to the Presidency and Preparing to be President: The Memos of Richard E. Neustadt. In his most recent book, The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction, Jones has written a marvelously concise survey that is packed with information about the presidency, some of it quite surprising. We learn, for example, that the Founders adopted the word “president” over “governor” and other alternatives because it suggested a light hand, as in one who presides, rather than rules.  In the original article below Jones analyzes Obama’s term as President-Elect.

Following his victory, President-Elect Barack Obama conducted a model transition, one suited to the standards set by successful transitions in the post-World War II era, most notably those of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald W. Reagan in 1980. Obama played it by the book, revealing that “change you can believe in” is to be achieved by governing methods he can trust.

During the 1960 campaign Kennedy reportedly said: “If I am elected, I don’t want to wake up on November 9 [the morning after the election] and ask myself ‘What in the world do I do now?’” The answer to that question was then, and remains, fairly simple. You prepare to be president. Arrangements begin with clear notions of who you have become, what the job entails, and who can be of help.

Obama became a presidential candidate in the 2008 campaign. That assertion is less trite than it appears. John McCain remained a maverick senator running for president, Hillary Clinton was an heir apparent First Lady, John Kerry a backbench senator in 2004, Al Gore an heir apparent Vice President in 2000. No one of these aspirants fully adopted the role of presidential candidate. Obama did.

Not having become an in-house senator in his brief service or been in a position to imagine himself an heir apparent, Obama was free to acquaint himself with the style and demands of a national campaign. He learned the role well enough to hire a compatible supporting cast and to script a message absent allusions to the past. “Change: That’s what you want? That’s what I will give you.”

The October surprise on Wall Street illustrated his differences with McCain. Obama remained the presidential candidate he had become. McCain suspended his campaign to resume his familiar role as the maverick senator. Yet the complex financial issues involved required neither a campaigner nor a nonconformist. Obama understood and stayed out of it; McCain rushed in where he was not needed or welcome.

On November 5, Obama became president-elect. That role too requires an understanding of how to behave. The most important guideline: There is a president, you’re not him. Corollaries: Remind the staff not to jump the gun—their time as big shots will come. Follow the book in making appointments and organizing White House staff. Don’t promise more in the first 100 days than can be delivered. Stay out of the way, preferably away from Washington, but be accessible and nice to the press. Find out how the White House works—inside the building itself and outside in the government. Accept the help offered by the incumbent administration in learning about departments, agencies, and budgets. Visit, but don’t invade, the workaday government. Be nice to Congressional leaders but wary of their advice. Find friends in the opposition party—you will need them. Can the arrogance of a victor—that goes even more for staff.

These rules are in accord with the Law of Commonsense. Yet President Elect Bill Clinton and his staff ignored most, if not all, these advisories. Obama and his aides paid heed to all, thereby winning praise and favorable comparisons to the Kennedy and Reagan transitions.

Knowing who you have become should aid immeasurably in learning what the job entails. The rules cited here provide orientation for the most important role—President of he United States. It all starts with understanding the separation of powers. The three branches, plus the bureaucracy, share and compete for powers permitting them to get into each other’s business. For example, Congress spent the last two years curbing executive powers the new president may wish he had.

Two facts are relevant to understanding the new job: 1. The president is not the government. 2. A new president joins a government already at work. The new Congress is mostly populated by members from the last Congress; judges serve life terms; and the bureaucracy is forever. What is new is a President Obama, his staff, and appointees, all charged to make what is already there work effectively under new leadership. One other fact: The choices presidents make today have an effect on persuasive power in the future. One need only review President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, relying on bad intelligence, for a contemporary illustration. Support for his leadership never recovered.

It is too early to know the depth of Obama’s savvy in serving as chief executive. He has no record and it is impossible to “game” the presidential experience. But there are positive clues from the campaign and the transition that the president-elect recognizes what is coming. The campaign showed he knows how to hire and keep good help. He understands the need, recognizes talent, communicates purposes, and commands loyalty. Furthermore, lacking experience himself, he has demonstrated strength of character and resolve in hiring those who do have the knowledge and skills he requires as president.

The process of selecting staff and cabinet positions was impressive. He assigned the major White House staff positions early, thus reducing job anxiety among his campaign operatives and allowing them to settle in during the transition to aid him and connect with establishment figures. The cabinet and ancillary selections were announced in policy clusters, thus showcasing “teams” rather than drawing attention to a single appointment. Further, the sequence revealed policy priorities, as with the early selections of the economic and national security teams. The president-elect himself made the announcements, his physical presence leaving little doubt as to who was in charge. And whereas diversity was the result, emphasis in each case was on the capability and experience of those chosen. One notable effect of this orderly process was to project an aura of leadership.

There was a casualty. Bill Richardson withdrew prior to a confirmation hearing. One case is par for the course and can have the effect of increased scrutiny of the rest.

Does this positive start ensure a successful Obama presidency? Hardly. Unscheduled events occur and unwelcome change happens, as with Israel’s assault in Gaza. Expect more agenda-bending events to interfere with the new president’s plans, hopefully not as dramatic as 9/11 for his predecessor.
The record as I read it, however, indicates that as a candidate and president-elect Barack Obama has verified an aptitude for leadership and for knowing who can best help him lead. Less clear is whether he understands that neither he nor Congress can quickly fix much of what is wrong in the nation and the world. In a separated powers government, confidence in knowing what to do is only part of getting it done.

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