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Presidential Historians Mull Shape of Obama Administration Thus Far

December 24, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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As President-elect Barack Obama completes the team of advisors and officers who will try to execute his campaign promises and navigate an economic crisis, historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith offer their perspectives of the Cabinet.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, how an incoming president builds a new government. That has been President-elect Obama’s chief task.

U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Chicago.

GWEN IFILL: Election night was all about the euphoria.

BARACK OBAMA: For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime: two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.

GWEN IFILL: The next day was all about the work. Even before he won, Barack Obama had begun organizing for a transition. Former White House chief of staff John Podesta was in charge.

With less than three months to do it, Mr. Obama would have to build a new government practically from scratch: 21 cabinet members, hundreds of sub-cabinet officials, 3,300 appointees in all, with more than 1,000 of them facing Senate confirmation, and more than 300,000 resumes have arrived at transition headquarters.

Mr. Obama outlined his thinking on the transition three days after the election.

BARACK OBAMA: I want to move with all deliberate haste, but I want to emphasize “deliberate” as well as “haste.” I’m proud of the choice I made of vice president, partly because we did it right. I’m proud of the choice of chief of staff, because we thought it through.

And I think it’s very important in all these key positions, both in the economic team and the national security team, to get it right and not to be so rushed that you end up making mistakes.

GWEN IFILL: But the president-elect has set new land speed records assembling the key officials who will help lead his administration, beginning with new chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and ending this past weekend with new science advisers.

Cabinet and staff were rolled out methodically over the course of three weeks, the economic team, the national security team, the energy and environmental teams, 69 people named to senior positions so far; 20 of 21 cabinet positions have a nominee.

Past presidents have moved more slowly. George W. Bush was hamstrung by the month-long election recount.

U.S. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re going to spend the afternoon talking about our transition.

GWEN IFILL: Although he was quick to name his high-profile cabinet members, many key posts remained unfilled a year later.

By early December of 1992, Bill Clinton had made only one cabinet appointment. That famously chaotic transition left his administration reeling through its first year.

But even for Obama, much remains to be done, beginning with confirmation hearings slated to begin even before the inauguration.

Building a government from scratch

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
[Obama is] all about trying to send a message of competence to a country that's badly rattled by the economic problems that we're confronting.

GWEN IFILL: And for more on how this president-elect's efforts stack up to those of administrations past, we turn to presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University.

Michael, when we talk about building a government from scratch, is it really a government from scratch or is there already something that's set in place that new presidents just build on?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Well, there are a lot of people who are protected by civil service, and they go on, whatever the administration is, because, going back to the 19th century, a lot of people thought it would be a bad idea to completely remove everyone who had experience and was not allied with the political party of the new president.

So we're really talking about a few thousand people at the top. Any new president, Barack Obama emphatically included, knows that, if you change those few thousand, it'll have a lot to do with the behavior of everyone below.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, you know, we have heard a lot about how this administration has worked to move so quickly in filling all of these open positions. Is that unusual in the history of presidential transitions?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, I think it -- at least marginally, I think they've set a record. I think if you go back -- for example, if you look at the first Bush to Clinton transition in '92, '93, I think that was much later in the day when you had a lot of these cabinet appointments announced.

And, of course, Bush 43 was hamstrung because of the circumstances surrounding the delayed confirmation of his election. But there's no doubt that this president has made a big deal out of hitting the ground running, in no small measure because he's all about trying to send a message of competence to a country that's badly rattled by the economic problems that we're confronting.

GWEN IFILL: So we talk about all of these new jobs that are open, all of these possibilities. Does it mean that there's change afoot just because there are new jobs to be filled, really? Or is it just a personnel process?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, gosh, well, the change comes with -- I mean, at the top, obviously. I mean, and the cabinet and ultimately the administration will reflect the temperament, the personality, the preferences, the character of the man at the top.

I mean, the Eisenhower administration, the cabinet was famously referred to as 11 millionaires and a plumber, the latter a rather short-lived secretary of labor.

John F. Kennedy, people talked about Harvard on the Potomac, because of all the bright young men who came from Cambridge and other universities, which in many ways were a sequel to FDR's brain trust 30 years earlier.

So it isn't that they're new jobs or even that there are new people in those jobs. It's what orders, in effect, what agenda those people will be carrying out.

Making good choices early is key

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
But Bill Clinton will tell you, if he were here, that when he was choosing his cabinet, he felt very hemmed in by a lot of different groups saying, "We have to have a member of our group in the cabinet."

GWEN IFILL: Michael, is it about ideology at this stage or is it just about trying to get the plumbers in the jobs there?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it's trying to get people to these jobs, but also Barack Obama not only knows from history, as Richard was mentioning, that when you've got a crisis of the magnitude that we now have, this financial crisis, you have to have people appointed quickly and generating confidence, especially Treasury and economic roles.

But he also knows something else, and that is that a couple of bad early appointments can really screw up your presidency at the beginning.

Bill Clinton offers a very good example. Zoe Baird he had nominated to be attorney general. Shortly before the inauguration, it was found that she had immigration problems, hadn't paid Social Security for two illegal immigrants in her household. Clinton tried to push the nomination through, finally had to withdraw it. It made him look incompetent.

And, also, Clinton had nominated someone named Lani Guinier to a top role in the Justice Department. Her views were probably left of Clinton's own views. He was trying to be a new Democrat, but because that embattled nomination drew so much attention, a lot of people six months in saw Clinton as a more leftish president than he wanted to be.

GWEN IFILL: We have seen Barack Obama, Michael, stumble in the past couple of days over the appointment of the inaugural prayer, the person who's going to give the prayer, the preacher, and not even a member of his cabinet, not even a member of his administration, but selecting Rick Warren, people raised questions about Barack Obama's judgment.

How much do constituent groups drive these kinds of decisions for presidents?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They usually don't have too much influence over people who give prayers or poets at an inauguration, although sometimes they do. But Bill Clinton will tell you, if he were here, that when he was choosing his cabinet, he felt very hemmed in by a lot of different groups saying, "We have to have a member of our group in the cabinet." He felt in retrospect he should have resisted some of those pressures.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Richard? Do you think that Barack Obama is resisting those pressures?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes. And, in fact, I think that's one of the defining stories of this transition. Bill Clinton, of course, famously opened the door to that pressure when he said, quite understandably, that he wanted a cabinet that looked more like America than cabinets in the past.

I think the story of this transition is the degree to which the president, who throughout his campaign talked about changing the tone in Washington, bringing an almost post-ideological approach to government, trying to reach across the aisle and move beyond some of the hot-button cultural and social issues of recent years.

Stop and think. Look at the people he's appointed to the cabinet. There's not an ideologue there. They are by and large -- it's a meritocracy. A lot of folks -- I think half the cabinet are current or former members of the Senate or governors or House members. They're pragmatists. They are practitioners.

And then the -- the invitation to Reverend Warren, which is I think understandably controversial in some quarters, nevertheless, you know, it does symbolize the lengths to which this president is willing to go to keep that pledge and even to take on some of his own supporters.

Some presidents thrive on conflict

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
The interesting thing, of course, is that the Kennedy example is pointed to by many as something that is to be avoided. Remember, Sam Rayburn famously telling LBJ, "I'd feel a lot better if one of them had run for sheriff."

GWEN IFILL: This president and others like them, Michael, have said that they don't -- that they encourage conflict and discussion within their cabinet. Is that really true? Do presidents really want people who are going to disagree with them? Is there any evidence that that's been so?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think there is. FDR really lived on that. He wanted everyone in his cabinet and in high positions arguing out the major issues of the day, but Roosevelt was an odd case, because he loved people fighting around him. He loved to keep them off-balance.

There was a little bit of a streak of cruelty in Roosevelt, that he liked to see the pain that they sometimes suffered being on the outs with the president. It takes a lot of energy for a president to govern that kind of thing.

So if Barack Obama can pull this off, all power to him, but he may find a year in that he's spending more energy resolving these kind of disputes than he may wish to do.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, there was some mention earlier about the Kennedy cabinet, with all the bright young things from Harvard. It seems like we have a lot of bright young things from Harvard coming into this cabinet, as well. Is that usually the choice?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The interesting thing, of course, is that the Kennedy example is pointed to by many as something that is to be avoided. Remember, Sam Rayburn famously telling LBJ, "I'd feel a lot better if one of them had run for sheriff."

And, of course, the Vietnam War has, fairly or not, come to be associated with the so-called best and the brightest. So that is a lesson of history that presumably the president-elect is well aware of and will take pains to avoid. The danger of hubris, that is a danger for anyone living in the executive bubble.

Obama's cabinet is a good sign

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
The way he won the Iowa caucus was by organizing from the top down and from the bottom up all sorts of layers of people working for him. It succeeded. There's every sign that he's doing the same thing here.

GWEN IFILL: You know, one of the things -- now that we have 20, I guess, up to 21 cabinet members picked, what does it tell us? Now we can look at it. What does it tell us about what Obama does or does not know about what awaits him in government?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it tells us some very good things. This guy is a manager. Hasn't been a governor. He wasn't a CEO of a corporation. But his background was in field organizing.

The way he won the Iowa caucus was by organizing from the top down and from the bottom up all sorts of layers of people working for him. It succeeded. There's every sign that he's doing the same thing here.

John Kennedy was a great president in many ways, but he had run nothing larger than his Senate office, and he appointed a few people, thought that that would be enough, got him into terrible trouble.

GWEN IFILL: Final thought on that, Richard Norton Smith?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, something else I think it tells us about the president-elect is that he is a man of self-confidence. He is confident enough to surround himself with people, some of whom have been his opponents in the past, many of whom have outsized personalities, independent followings of their own.

And he is sufficiently confident about his ability to bring them together around a common agenda and implement that. That tells you something significant about the kind of leader he intends to be.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss, lovely holidays to you both.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Same to you.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Same to you.