As he demonstrated in his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama thinks long. Hence, the new President-elect is better prepared to take office than any other newly elected chief executive in the history of the modern presidency. (This includes vice-presidents who succeeded to the office, with the possible exception of George H.W. Bush.) While still in the midst of the grueling contest for the presidency, Obama and his advisers deliberated and planned how he wanted to conduct a possible transition and how he wanted to govern. This is unusual. A preelection transition team was formed in early August, weeks before the final campaign began, and put in the hands of the wise and experienced John Podesta, who had held high positions in the Clinton White House and is now the head of the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington he founded in 2003 to generate progressive ideas.
Even earlier, not long after he wrapped up the nomination in June, Obama recruited Phil Schiliro, former top aide to California congressman Henry Waxman, to try to keep the Democratic Congress in synch with the campaign. When during the election race Obama felt that he had to relent on the issue of offshore drilling, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of California, who is highly sensitive to protecting coastlines, reluctantly switched her position to support him. Well before the election, Schiliro and other Obama campaign staff members were also in frequent touch behind the scenes with Democratic congressional leaders about the future agenda. (Schiliro will serve as head of congressional relations in the Obama White House.)
The day after Obama’s election, he announced an official transition team—led by Podesta, together with Valerie Jarrett, a former city official and businesswoman from Chicago, as well as a longtime Obama friend and adviser, and Pete Rouse, Obama’s Senate chief of staff—and was well along in his thinking about how to go about setting up his presidency. By moving quickly, he established that he was taking charge; several of his predecessors had thrashed about for quite a while in setting up their own teams. Obama learned from their mistakes; his decision to name a chief of staff first, in order to start early in shaping the White House staff and making other critical decisions, was in sharp contrast to Bill Clinton’s waiting until mid-December to name his chief of staff. And Clinton’s choice of Mac McLarty, a kindergarten friend from Hope, Arkansas, a nice man with no Washington experience, wasn’t a success. McLarty was replaced two years later. (In time, Podesta held that job.)
Obama’s naming of Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton aide and now high-ranking member of Congress, two days after the election reflected Obama’s own very tough qualities. Emanuel’s notorious toughness is what Obama wanted in order to get things done. Obama said privately that Emanuel will “have my back,” i.e., be his protector. Emanuel’s position in Congress—as chairman of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.