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Obama’s White House Transition Strategy Begins to Emerge

November 6, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama is beginning to name top administration officials as his transfer-of-power plan emerges. Analysts provide insight into how the process works.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s announcement that Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel has accepted the job of White House chief of staff in the new Obama administration signals the start of the complicated process of transitioning from one president to another.

For a look at what’s involved, we are joined by Steven Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and the author of the book “What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect.”

And Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, he is currently advising the Bush administration’s transition council.

Thank you both for being with us.

Norm Ornstein, I’m going to begin with you. This selection of Rahm Emanuel, what does it say about the kind of administration Barack Obama is going to be running?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: It was an interesting choice, Judy. You know, this is somebody Obama has been friends with for years, knows Chicago politics, knows the House of Representative, while, of course, Obama and Biden know the Senate, and has another quality besides having worked in the White House.

You know, a president needs somebody who can make things happen. Harry Truman said, when Dwight Eisenhower got elected, “Poor Ike, he comes out of the military where you give an order and it happens. He’s going to get here in the Oval Office and say, ‘Do this, do that,’ and nothing will happen.”

You need somebody tough enough to put the fear of God into the people in your own government so that the president’s orders get carried out. And that’s a quality Rahm has.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Hess, you’re smiling. What do you make of this?

STEPHEN HESS, Brookings Institution: I’m smiling, because he mentioned the Harry Truman statement about Dwight Eisenhower. And, of course, what he did Dwight Eisenhower do? He brought in Sherman Adams.

Sherman Adams had been in Congress. He was the governor. He was tough. He could get things to happen. And he was a very — he was a brass-knuckles type, as perhaps Rahm Emanuel is, as well.

And for six years, until he got into a scandal himself, he did a very good job. So if that’s the model, not bad.

Obama must set priorities

Norman Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
You've really got to begin from the get-go at choosing your top people, not just the cabinet, but the sub-cabinet positions that matter, so that you can begin the vetting process and be ready to have them serving soon after you're inaugurated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seventy-five days from now until Barack Obama becomes the president, Steve Hess. What are the first things he needs to be worried about getting done right now?

STEPHEN HESS: OK. First, he's got to sort out his priorities. He's got to decide, as Ronald Reagan did, about five things that could get done, what order you want to do it. Be ready to move quickly.

You've got to sort them out into long term and short term, too. If they're going to be very long term and you're not going to be able to do it quickly because you don't have enough money, at least give some transparency. Tell the American people what's ahead for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you talking about major goals he needs to set?

STEPHEN HESS: Major goals, yes. Major goals. Look, if Bill Clinton had done this, just simply set out the five things you wanted to do, he wouldn't have gotten into the question of gays in the military. That's not what his campaign was all about. It was about, "It's the economy, stupid." And so he hit the ground stumbling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Norm Ornstein, what would you add to that?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I think that that's absolutely right. Along with that, you've got to, as Steve pointed out in his wonderful book, choose your chief of staff early and get your White House organized.

And you've really got to begin from the get-go at choosing your top people, not just the cabinet, but the sub-cabinet positions that matter, so that you can begin the vetting process and be ready to have them serving soon after you're inaugurated on January 20th.

One of the big mistakes that presidents make is to let the policy of personnel slide and end up having a bunch of empty desks around their administration with nobody in charge in important policy areas.

Choosing senior officials

Stephen Hess
Brookings Institution
You know, I was thinking as he said that, poor Jimmy Carter. He picked his first eight positions in the White House; seven of them were Georgians, and only one of them had ever had any service in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Guidelines, Norm Ornstein, for the president to follow in choosing those people?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, one thing that really matters here, and it's a mistake that presidents make -- I'm sure that the Obama team has been deluged -- and Barack himself -- with 100,000 resumes from every relative, every person he's ever met, everybody who contributed to the campaign, every member of Congress and alderman looking for jobs for themselves or their children or their friends.

And there's a tendency to fill the 2,600 positions in the so-called Plum Book, the political appointments you have to make, by satisfying some of those political needs, picking positions that don't seem very consequential, and using them as sinecures for people to satisfy political needs.

Every position on that list has some significant policy importance, and you need to be tough-minded and pick people who have the talents, the skills, and the knowledge to operate in those positions or you're going to end up with some deadwood. And sometimes that deadwood can lead to, "You're doing a wonderful job, Brownie."

STEPHEN HESS: That's right. You know, I was thinking as he said that, poor Jimmy Carter. He picked his first eight positions in the White House; seven of them were Georgians, and only one of them had ever had any service in Washington.

And with a Congress that was even more Democratic than Barack Obama had, within one month, Tip O'Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House, was saying things about Hamilton Jordan, the chief of staff, that I couldn't repeat on this program.

The importance of balance

Norman Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
If, for example, President-elect Obama kept on Bob Gates as secretary of defense and picked Richard Lugar as secretary of state, that would send a signal that goes well beyond tokenism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what about the balance that a president needs to strike between familiar faces, people who've done this before, served in an administration, and new faces?

STEPHEN HESS: Yes, well, certainly, I thoroughly agree with Norm. Loyalists can get you in trouble. I mean, there have been a lot of folks who have spent a lot of their life trying to help Barack Obama, and he owes them something, and they want jobs.

Unfortunately, they don't all have vast government experience. If they were nuclear scientists, you could put them on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

You've got to find the right place for those people. The one who was the best at that was John F. Kennedy. He could fit somebody with the needs, with his talents, compared to what the rewards of the job might be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about, Norman, naming Republicans to the administration? How important is that, both in reality and in terms of the signal that it sends?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It's important. I mean, you can't -- if you pick a token Republican, then, you know, nobody is going to much care. It looks good, but it doesn't have great resonance.

It's got to go a little bit deeper than that to say that your rhetoric during the campaign, that you wanted to bring the parties and people together, was more than just rhetoric.

You know, that means probably picking two or three high-profile people, including some whose political views on every issue would not be consonant with your own.

If, for example, President-elect Obama kept on Bob Gates as secretary of defense and picked Richard Lugar as secretary of state, that would send a signal that goes well beyond tokenism.

And I suspect, because he's got a number of Republican friends, including Lugar, including Chuck Hagel and others, that we're going to see more than one Republican in a high-profile post.

And sometimes those people can help you a little bit with their previous colleagues on Capitol Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve...

STEPHEN HESS: I'm a little different on that. If he were to pick Lugar and retain Gates, he would be saying something about the talents in the Democratic Party.

After all, he was elected -- overwhelmingly elected as a Democrat. If you're going to pick a Republican in the inner cabinet, you've got to be sure that that's the best available person.

You make these token appointments in the outer cabinet if you have to. But, after all, there are a lot of very good people who are Democrats and who want to be secretary of state and secretary of defense. And this is their opportunity.

Complications for Obama

Stephen Hess
Brookings Institute
The sort of involvement that is appropriate for Barack Obama, it was pretty much as stated by Norm...Obama has got to be very careful about not letting himself be pushed over beyond that line, which has happened repeatedly to presidents in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Norm Ornstein, how much does it complicated Barack Obama's job that he's got not only the current economic financial crisis -- the Dow Jones Industrial Average continuing to drop today -- two wars we're fighting overseas?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, you know, one of the reasons I believe that the Bush administration is doing a remarkable job of making this transition work from the other side -- it's a commitment we haven't seen from an outgoing president before -- is that this is a national security and homeland security concern.

We've got two wars. We've got dangers at home. And we know that this is a very vulnerable time, in the interregnum and then in the first few months of a new administration, and then we've got a financial crisis.

You know, throw in one other problem, Judy. We have this unique process in the United States. In a parliamentary system, you have an election and the change takes place the next day. This period, 77 days in all, 75 more to go, you've got a president-elect and a president.

You know, it's a little bit like having -- somebody just gets married, but the person they've divorced stays in the house for the next two-and-a-half months. It's a little difficult to figure out how you're going to make your way around through the kitchen, the bathroom, and all of these other things.

You've got to -- first of all, as a president-elect -- make some of these appointments even earlier than you might otherwise. The Treasury secretary now becomes critical, and you've got to have a kind of cooperation.

George W. Bush is president. He makes the decision for the next 75 days. But you want to have some communication with the president coming in so that you fulfill your own responsibilities and goals, but don't screw things up for him, and that your people are brought into the table so that they know what's going on, so that the handover can be smooth.

STEPHEN HESS: I think that's very right, because it's very clear in the Constitution, we have one president at a time. And until noon on Jan. 20, the president is George W. Bush.

So the sort of involvement that is appropriate for Barack Obama, it was pretty much as stated by Norm, but you've got to be very careful that -- Obama has got to be very careful about not letting himself be pushed over beyond that line, which has happened repeatedly to presidents in the past.

It took -- an example might be George H.W. Bush, says -- in the interregnum, says, "Oh, I've got a great idea. I'm going to send some troops to Somalia." Bill Clinton says, "Hey, that's a nice idea." He said, "Yes, and they'll be out by the time you get around."

Well, of course, they're not out by that time, Black Hawk down, and he pays a price for that. So you've got to be a little careful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A word of warning, 75 days to go. Steve Hess, Norman Ornstein, thank you both.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thanks, Judy.

STEPHEN HESS: Thank you, Judy.