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 the Democratic caucus he is the fourth-ranking Democrat and he managed the Democrats’ highly successful 2006 congressional campaign—shows that he both is effective and can get along with others. Behind the aggressiveness and fluent profanity—he knows when to employ his hard-charging demeanor and when not to—is also a kind and sensitive man; supposedly a rough partisan, he developed friendly relationships with several Republicans on Capitol Hill. People who fret that Emanuel, having served in the Clinton White House and on Capitol Hill, doesn’t represent “change” needn’t worry. Emanuel is very close to Obama, was an adviser during the campaign, understands what he wants to do—and knows that his role is to serve the President.
Obama’s meetings with Hillary Clinton and John McCain about playing important roles in his presidency indicated his imagination and his shrewdness, although sources close to Obama say he did not offer her the job of secretary of state when they met. He had said during the campaign that he wanted various views in his government, and in turning to his own former competitors, Obama was at the same time magnanimous and seeking to keep them close. Both were in a position to cause him difficulty in the Senate—Clinton, in particular, had kept her constituency intact (through HillPAC) and was planning her own Senate agenda, including her own health care program, no matter what Obama proposed. But Clinton lacks the seniority, and therefore a committee position from which to get her proposals taken up by the Senate. (She tried to get a special subcommittee appointed, but Edward M. Kennedy, who has his own health care plan and is chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the issue, blocked her, offering her later a role concerning health insurance.) McCain had indicated that he wanted to help Obama in the Senate, and by taking him up on it, Obama has both flattered and coopted him.
Mrs. Clinton’s and her closest advisers’ turning a suggestion by the President-elect that she might, among other things, head the State Department into an “offer” and reports that she was agonizing over whether to accept it, did not please officials in Chicago, some of whom hoped that issues over disclosure of Bill Clinton’s post-presidential record might block the appointment. But the former president’s camp blocked that by promising to cooperate with requests for information and to accept limits on his activities, including clearance of speaking engagements abroad. Statements by the Hilary camp on November 21 saying that “she’s ready” for the position but then backtracking, saying that some matters were “under discussion,” typified the whole mess, the only snag thus far in an otherwise unusually smooth transition involving impressive choices—an object lesson to Obama (which he had reason to know already) that getting involved with the Clintons is rarely uncomplicated.
Obama understood the point—which eludes some presidential candidates—that running is about governing, that there should be a seamless connection between the two. The best way to judge presidential candidates—aside from whether one basically agrees with their values—is to try to envision them governing. Will they inspire people to follow them? What kind of people do they have around them? How do they run their campaign? The wise candidate, the one who sees long, will run the campaign as a preparation for the presidency. In Obama’s case, from what we have been able to observe up to this point, there will be a straight line from his campaigning to his governing. At their convention, Republicans mocked Obama for having been a community organizer (apparently thinking this was some sort of airy-fairy occupation, not real work); they were defeated by the community organizer—and they will discover that the country is being governed by one. Obama’s understanding that change comes from building a popular mandate from the ground up made his the best-organized campaign, the most methodical in marshaling support, attracting volunteers, and establishing field offices in the various states. It ran rings around both the Clinton and McCain campaigns.
The primary contests became the foundation of the general election, and the innovative techniques the Obama campaign used in both phases will be carried into the presidency. In both periods, the Obama campaign collected names and contact numbers both from the Internet and at big rallies, including even his acceptance speech in Denver, attended by more than 75,000 people. Most of those digitized names were called, e-mailed, and text-messaged, often more than once, by election day. At some of the rallies the members of the audience were asked to call and e-mail their friends and families and ask them to vote. The names and the innovative technology that the Obama campaign employed will be used in the future, giving the new President a large and ready army to call upon when he needs help in getting an issue through Congress. There are now an estimated ten million addresses in the database. Their members of Congress will hear from them. There’s never been anything like this before.
A system is to be set up to provide real interaction between the people and their government; Obama has promised greater “transparency” than ever before. As he promised in his campaign, he is planning a fresh approach to governing.
Starting during the debates, and then quite clearly in his election-night speech, Obama has sought to tamp down expectations of how much he will be able to get done, and how quickly. This is not just a matter of budgetary constraints. Some liberals who were passionately for him may be disappointed by his agenda. A couple of weeks before the election, one of Obama’s closest advisers told me that he would govern “from the center.” Even as he campaigned, Obama spoke of his desire to have broad majorities behind his proposals, as the only way to effect significant and lasting change. In seeking to form broad coalitions, including with some Republicans, in support of his ideas, he will be making trade-offs that won’t please all of his followers. The devoted student of Abraham Lincoln wants to “think anew.”
Obama has spoken a great deal about seeking bipartisanship, but how much this is attainable is yet to be known. The Republican ranks on Capitol Hill will have shrunk as a result of the election, and will be more dominated by the right. Few moderate Republicans in the Senate—Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe among them—remain. In the House, there are only seventeen Republicans from the eastern states between Maryland and Maine, and none from New England. Obama seeks to set a new tone in Washington, but House Republican leaders, and those jockeying for leadership positions, like Eric Cantor (Virginia) and Dan Lungren (California), are playing to their conservative base and are sounding as partisan as ever—if not more so. They appear disinclined to give the new President any cooperation, shortsighted though that may be for their party.
Both economic reality and prudent politics require that Obama not overreach. Bill Clinton, who was elected by a plurality, not a majority, wasted whatever mandate he had in two years, and in 1994 was overrun by the election of an overwhelmingly Republican Congress. Obama, who won 53 percent of the vote (to McCain’s 46)—the highest percentage of the vote by any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964—and thus can claim a mandate, won’t govern as a traditional Democrat.
His campaign was a combination of audacity and caution—and he may be more cautious in general than some Democrats or others will like. He’s spoken of a bold energy-independence program that will also be designed to create new jobs; a job-producing program to improve the nation’s infrastructure; a reform of health care of unknown scope at this point; tax cuts for the middle class; and improvements in education. He’ll probably have to fix the financial bailout, about which the Bush Treasury Department blundered badly, and will try to get help to the automobile industry while pushing it in a new direction. (That the Treasury Department’s first approach was wrongheaded was apparent to some at the outset; but once again the administration rushed Congress into a “crisis” decision.) At the same time, of course, Obama will be trying to end the war in Iraq and dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, and meeting other urgent international challenges.