The Obama Presidential Transition: An Early Assessment

Article excerpt

The seventy-six days between election day, November 4, 2008, and inauguration day, January 20, 2009, once again demonstrated the significance of the transition period to an ensuing presidency. For the Obama presidency, the transition was especially important given the uncertain environment in which he entered office: the first president-elect since Richard M. Nixon to take office in wartime, as well as the first incoming president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to face the gravest of economic difficulties. Economic conditions were particularly notable in the cloud they ominously cast on his presidency: banking and auto industries on the verge of collapse, a stock market in its most significant retreat since the 1930s, skyrocketing federal deficits, and an economy in the midst of what is likely to be the deepest recession in the post-World War II era.

At the same time, Obama's political position was reasonably favorable. He garnered a healthy majority of the popular (52.9%) and electoral vote (365). The popular vote was a more propitious result than the pluralities of John F. Kennedy in 1960 (49.7%), Nixon in 1968 (43.4%), Bill Clinton in 1992 (43%), and, of course, the popular vote loss of George W. Bush in 2000 (47.9%). It was above the bare majority that Jimmy Carter won in 1976 (50.1%) and only slightly behind George H. W. Bush in 1988 (53.4%). The electoral vote was also significant: above Kennedy (303), Nixon (301), Carter (297), and G. W. Bush (271), and only slightly less than Clinton (370). Yet Obama's victory was hardly of record-making proportions. He was well below the margins of FDR in 1932, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. (1) However, like all of the last three, his accession to office followed that of an unpopular incumbent. His campaign themes of "hope" and "change" resonated with an uncertain public. But would the difficult context of his transition and early presidency yield an effective policy response?

A Successful--and Ambitious--Pre-Election Effort

Since Jimmy Carter's transition in 1976, presidential candidates have made significant efforts before election day in planning for a possible presidency. For Carter, work began shortly after it was clear that he would be the Democratic Party's nominee following the Pennsylvania primary in April. For Reagan, tentative steps were taken late in 1979 and a formal effort began in the spring of 1980, once Reagan's nomination was secured. For G. H. W. Bush, discussions began in late 1987, and, like his two predecessors, serious work commenced once his nomination was clear. For Clinton, planning began right after the July 1992 Democratic National Convention. G. W. Bush chose to start much earlier: the spring of 1999, the earliest effort to date.

Obama and his associates, especially former Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, followed the 1992 pattern and waited until the summer of 2008 to begin the major part of their work. Some reports even indicated that they were well under way by that point. As Paul Light (2009) notes, "The Obama team ... started writing briefing memos long before Obama announced his planning effort last July. Indeed, the outline of the transition's soon-to-be-published book of transition essays was set last April." More generally, according to another account, "Obama got an early jump on his transition planning last spring, turning discreetly to Washington veterans and survivors of the Clinton years for advice on how best to launch his administration" should he win (Simendinger 2008, 71; also see Sweet 2008). According to Podesta, Obama "understood that in order to be successful he had to be ready. And he had to be ready fast" (Tumulty 2008, 27).

Podesta was tapped to direct the operation, and by all accounts, he proved to be an effective choice. (2) He was knowledgeable about White House and personnel matters, had directed the outgoing Clinton transition in 2000, and understood Congress and the ways of Washington. …