The 2008-2009 Presidential Transition through the Voices of Its Participants

By Kumar, Martha Joynt | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The 2008-2009 Presidential Transition through the Voices of Its Participants


Kumar, Martha Joynt, Presidential Studies Quarterly


It was mid-morning at the White House on January 20, 2009. President and Mrs. George W. Bush were hosting the traditional pre-inauguration coffee in the Blue Room for President-Elect and Mrs. Barack Obama, as well as the Cheneys and the Bidens. Meanwhile, the chiefs of staff for the outgoing and incoming chief executives, Joshua Bolten and Rahm Emanuel, went over to the Situation Room in the West Wing, where they joined the national security teams for both administrations. They were alert to new developments in an unfolding security threat pegged to the inauguration, which would be witnessed by millions throughout the world. By this point, the principals of both national security teams knew one another from their group crisis training sessions and their one-on-one meetings that had begun before the election. And the Bush administration had prepared information for officials from the Obama team. "We talked about a threat to the inauguration, which had just surfaced in the last 24 hours. And the FBI briefed the threat--the intelligence community briefed the threat, what we were doing about it, how credible we thought it was.... it involved an attack on the mall," said National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who was in the room and involved in the response. The night before the inauguration, an FBI/Homeland Security bulletin issued to state and local law enforcement identified a possible threat to the event from al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based Islamist group with links to al Qaeda (Hsu 2009). (1)

Hadley recalled that the session that morning "went almost three hours [with] the incoming and outgoing core teams of the National Security Council ... I was there, Condi [Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] was there, [Secretary of Defense] Bob Gates was there, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Admiral Mullen was there, [Central Intelligence Agency Director] Mike Hayden was there, [Director of National Intelligence] Mike McConnell was there.... we had the Attorney General [Michael Mukasey] as well, and [FBI Director] Bob Mueller came for part of it. And we had [the] rough counterparts on the other side [officials named to those positions by President-Elect Obama]" (Hadley 2009).

Cabinet members and designees felt sufficiently comfortable with one another to discuss responses the incoming president could have. "Senator [Hillary] Clinton really showed ... the sense of both a politician and also [was] able to see things from the president's perspective. And she asked the best question of the meeting, which was 'So what should Barack Obama do if he's in the middle of his inaugural address, and a bomb goes off way in the back of the crowd somewhere on the mall? What does he do? Is the Secret Service going to whisk him off the program--or the podium, so the American people see their incoming president disappear in the middle of the inaugural address? I don't think so.'" The threat discussion with all of the principal officials in the outgoing and incoming administrations allowed everyone to work through a potential crisis event on the first day for Barack Obama and the last one for George W. Bush. It also demonstrated how well people were able to work together. Joshua Bolten commented about the handling of the situation: "Rahm was well informed and he had informed Obama about what was going on. So at that moment I was proud of the way that we had managed to integrate the incoming folks into the management of a potential crisis" (Bolten 2009).

The crisis management operation that morning illustrates several aspects of the 2008-2009 transition that made the period a successful transfer of power. First, since 2001, Congress, the president, and the executive branch have made decisions that indirectly as well as directly had an impact on the transition, especially in the national security area. Second, members of the incoming administration worked with administration records of White House office structures, administration operations, and personnel processes and with former government officials experienced in past transitions. …

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