Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Transition We Can Believe In
I'm liking about 90 percent of what I'm hearing about the Obama transition. He's evidently as determined as I'd hoped not to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton transition 16 years ago; to that point, it might seem ironic that the effort is being spearheaded by old Clinton hands Rahm Emanuel and John Podesta, but it isn't. They're veterans of the effective (if politically neutered...) late-Clinton machine, not the rolling pizza party of 1993. Here's a useful article about how Podesta's fingerprints will be all over the coming administration.

As for Emanuel, I initially shared the widely held concern that putting such a bare-knuckled partisan fighter in as sensitive a role as Chief of Staff sent an unpleasant signal. But this concern is outweighed by Emanuel's universally acknowledged abilities to get things done, supported by his deep knowledge and strong relations within both the legislative and executive branches. And if he's Obama's "bad cop," so be it; you might as well have someone who can play that role to the hilt. Rahmbo qualifies.

Marc Ambinder's take on lessons learned:
Clinton had James Carville -- the most brilliant Democratic strategist at the time, and he had a lot of young guns. But he did not have a John Podesta to walk him through what it took to ran the White House, and certainly not a Rahm Emanuel.

The Clinton team thought that the cabinet mattered more than the White House staff, and spent a lot of time arguing, deciding, negotiating over cabinet picks. But the real power and control in Washington is centered in the White House. [...] The White House staff was not named until just before Christmas -- a mistake. They didn't get their bearings until well into the administration.

He also notes that Clinton failed to grasp the centrality of the Senate both to moving legislation and to setting a bipartisan tone; most of the young guns, including Emanuel himself, hailed from the more partisan House, and Clinton didn't do much to forge ties with senior eminences like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Obama, of course, knows all these guys from having spent four years as a colleague:

Obama, being of the Senate, has a lot of pals, and he has the ultimate dealmaker as a close confidant, ex-Sen. Tom Daschle.

Which leads us back to Rahm Emanuel.

Why did Obama want Emanuel to be chief of staff? Surely his standing in and knowledge of the Congress.

But more importantly: Rahm knows the White House. He knows how to make the White House work.

Other transition nuggets include the high ethics standards imposed--most prominently, strict bans on the involvement of active lobbyists--which have drawn praise from the likes of Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein; the pledge to include Republicans and independents in the administration "not just on a token level" (given the message discipline of the Obama team, it's very likely that the rumors about the president-elect asking Secretary of Defense Gates to stay at his post are true), the intention to close the Guantanamo prison, and the announcement that the administration will follow through on its campaign promise to create an Office of Urban Policy. As we're coming to expect with Obama, this last move blends political self-interest--cities went for him by unprecedented margins--with prudent governance: the issues he has signaled to take on, from energy to healthcare and education, all present particular challenges and have increased importance to urban communities.

Again, there will be missteps and dumb decisions and days when we're feeling bitter and disappointed. Change won't come quickly or easily or (in any sense) cheaply. But just as Obama was thoughtful, practical and ultimately successful about his campaign, he seems to be taking the correct initial first steps toward his presidency in the same manner.

4 comments:

The Navigator said...

The only thing not to like about an Office of Urban Policy is that it reminds me of something Clinton once said, about how he wanted someone in the room at Cabinet meetings so they could be the voice for [some important group - children, I think]. Maybe this is naive or unrealistic, but I didn't see why there should be only one person standing up for some disadvantaged group - you ought to be able to assemble a Cabinet of sufficiently progressive and like-minded folks that everyone is considering policy with an eye on how it affects that group. I'm not saying Obama's OUP will be balkanized that way; I just have a slight concern at the possibility that there would be one appointee saying "here's how energy/transportation/etc. policy needs to be structured to help cities" and the Secretary of Energy/Transportation/Whatever shouts back "the hell with you! Do as I say! Bring me the Rolling Stones!"

David said...

"Smithers, have the Rolling Stones killed."

"But sir, those aren't--"

"DO AS I SAY!"

(sorry)

The scenario you're talking about is plausible I guess, but I think the real factor is how committed Obama and perhaps the more behind-the-scenes players, like Emanuel, really are to the notion. Given that he's a city guy himself, and he'll be hearing about how policies play back home, I think there's reason for relative optimism.

Chris said...

I just don't like that I probably have to submit backshegoes posts to see if I pass muster.

David said...

That was close to my first thought.

Administration HR guy: "So, why did you make 10,000 posts under the user name 'jeffstoned'?"

Me: "Well, see, it had to do with the decades-long Phillies tendency to overhype their minor-league prospects, thus raising expectations to an unrealistic level that the players, who were often terribly flawed as was Mr. Jeff Stone, could not reach."

(Pause)

"Also, um, drug joke."

HR guy: "Thank you for your candor. We'll be referring your resume to the DEA now..."