It is one of the ironies of politics and history that when the candidate of change was pondering what he would do if he actually got elected President, he turned to the man who eight years before handed over the White House keys to George W. Bush. Former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta had met Barack Obama only a few times before the Democratic nominee summoned him to Chicago in August to ask him to begin planning a transition. Podesta supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and had little in common with Obama beyond the fact that they are both skinny guys from Chicago. Yet it is hard to think of a Democrat in Washington who can match Podesta's organizational abilities or his knowledge of the inner workings of government. And Obama was already giving plenty of thought to the crucial 76 days between the election and the Inauguration. "He understood that in order to be successful, he had to be ready," says Podesta, who is now a co-chairman of the transition team. "And he had to be ready fast."
Even in the calmest of times, the transfer of presidential power is a tricky maneuver, especially when it involves one party ceding the office to another. But not since Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in the midst of the Depression has a new President faced a set of challenges quite as formidable as those that await Obama. That's why Obama has been quicker off the blocks in setting up his government than any of his recent predecessors were, particularly Bill Clinton, who did not announce a single major appointment until mid-December. As the President-elect put it in his first radio address, "We don't have a moment to lose." (See pictures of Obama's victory celebration in Chicago.)
Not only did Obama name a White House chief of staff two days after the election, but he also began to fill 120,000 sq. ft. (11,000 sq m) of office space in downtown Washington with a transition operation that is ultimately expected to have a staff of 450 and a budget of $12 million, more than half of which must be raised from private funds. Obama's goal, says his old friend Valerie Jarrett, another co-chair of the transition operation, "is to be able to be organized, efficient, disciplined and transparent to the American people." More disciplined than transparent: Washington's quadrennial parlor game is in full swing, with scores of names being circulated as contenders for top jobs in the Obama Administration. But the number of people who actually know anything is small, and they are not prone to leaking.
The transition provides an early glimpse of how the Obama team will conduct itself in power — and a test of how much change it really will bring to Washington. As the cascade of crises grows — the collapse of General Motors being the latest — the President-elect won't have time to settle in before making big decisions. In a real sense, the moves Obama makes in the next six weeks may help define what kind of President he will be. The appointments he makes, the way he engineers his government, how fast he gets everything in place — each of those things will determine whether he stumbles or bursts out of the starting gate and whether he sets forth a clear or an incoherent agenda for governing.
By all indications, this is shaping up to be one of the most amicable transfers of power between the parties in recent years — thanks in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Planning for the handoff was under way well before the Obamas paid a visit to the Bushes at the White House on Nov. 10 for a tour of the place that they, their daughters and the new President's mother-in-law will soon be calling home. Since September, Podesta has been quietly working with current White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and Bolten's deputy, Blake Gottesman, to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible. Bolten and Gottesman have been offering advice on which posts need to be filled quickest and making their personnel available to Obama advisers. More than 100 interim security clearances have already been granted to Obama aides. "If a crisis hits on Jan. 21, they're the ones who are going to have to deal with it," Bolten said in an interview with C-SPAN. "We need to make sure that they're as well prepared as possible."
The most labor-intensive phase is about to begin, as teams of Obama aides descend on more than 100 federal departments and agencies to begin poring over their operations. Meanwhile, the new Administration is looking for more than 300 Cabinet secretaries, deputies and assistant secretaries, plus upwards of 2,500 political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation. Not that there will be any lack of candidates: in the first five days after Obama's team set up its Change.gov website, 144,000 applications poured in.
Obama seems determined to avoid the mistakes of Bill Clinton's chaotic transition in 1992, which helped set the stage for what turned out to be a rocky first year in office. Whereas Clinton put most of his early efforts into picking a diverse Cabinet that he said would look like America — and required three attempts to come up with a female Attorney General — Obama will initially focus on building his White House operation, much as Ronald Reagan did in 1980. Cabinet appointments are likely to begin coming by the end of the month, which is still early by recent historical standards. But Podesta says Obama intends to make the White House the locus of policy formulation and decision-making.
The strongest signal of how that White House will operate has been Obama's pick of Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel to be its chief of staff. Emanuel is a win-at-any-cost partisan but not an ideologue; in his earlier White House stint as a top aide to Clinton, he was a key figure in shepherding through the North American Free Trade Agreement, a crime bill and welfare reform — none of them popular with the Democratic Party's liberal base. The appointment of someone who has been a savvy operator at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue also shows that, for all Obama's talk of change, he does not intend to make the mistake of earlier Presidents who ran as outsiders and brought in top advisers who did not understand the folkways of Washington. (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.)
But there are those who worry that Emanuel's hard-edged style — he's famously profane and once sent an enemy a dead fish — will stifle dissent and debate in a White House that, Jarrett says, Obama wants to function using a "team-of-rivals approach, with differences of opinion." Comparing Emanuel with Richard Nixon's ruthless chief of staff, New York University government expert Paul Light predicts, "He's going to make Bob Haldeman look like a cupcake."
The Agenda Dilemma
Beyond personnel, the transition period is likely to yield insights into Obama's executive abilities and his agenda. Obama, following a model set by F.D.R. during his transition, has signaled that he does not intend to get deeply involved in the wrangling between Bush and Congress over an economic-stimulus package. Nor does he intend to return to Washington from Chicago to vote on one if it should come to the Senate chamber, where he technically still serves.
But given the urgency of the challenges — guarding against another terrorist attack and dealing with an economic crisis — Obama knows he doesn't have time on his side. His top priority will be stabilizing the financial system, he said in an interview with CNN shortly before the election, followed by investing in renewable energy, universal health care, middle-class tax cuts and education reform. Then there are the other things he talked about at various points in the campaign: closing Guantánamo, withdrawing from Iraq, renegotiating trade deals, reforming immigration. How quickly those now secondary goals will follow is a major question and source of debate among Obama's advisers. Publicly, they insist that he can do it all, and there is plenty of talk about putting these issues on parallel tracks. But it is hard to see how he can afford such expensive undertakings alongside a $700 billion federal bailout of the financial system (which Obama now wants to extend to the collapsing auto industry) and a new economic-stimulus package.
One relatively easy way that he can put early points on the change board once in office is by issuing a series of Executive Orders — for instance, reversing Bush policies on stem-cell research, offshore drilling and the prohibition against using foreign-aid money for abortion counseling. Congress, with its stronger Democratic majorities in both houses, is likely to quickly pass legislation that previously died under a Bush veto, beginning with expanded funding for the children's health-insurance program that is administered by the states. And lawmakers may also begin passing parts of Obama's economic and energy plans piecemeal.
The question is whether that will build Obama's momentum for bigger change or merely squander his honeymoon. Here too, Clinton's history is telling. In his first year, he put so much energy and capital into his deficit-reduction package and NAFTA that, in the view of some who served with him, he had little left for health care in his second.
The greatest challenge of all for President Obama will be the one set for him by candidate Obama. A Diageo/Hotline poll conducted after his election showed that two-thirds of those surveyed are now confident that "real change" is coming to Washington. How long are they willing to wait for it? Hope can fuel a campaign, but Presidents are measured by results.
— With reporting by Jay Newton-Small / Washington