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Obama Fends Off Bush’s Embrace

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/bush-obama-111108.jpgPres. George W. Bush and Sen. Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office on Monday. (whitehouse.gov)

And now comes the transition. After winning his historic victory last Tuesday, the nation’s first African-American president –and the first non-white chief executive elected in a white majority nation — President-elect Barack Obama has earned an interlude for celebration and relaxation.

But he has barely paused to breathe. Having reconceived campaign organization and fund-raising and redrawn the national political map, Obama may next rewrite the rulebook for political transitions. Already he has selected a White House chief of staff; is set to name more White House staffers this week, and is poised to function much like a sitting president well in advance of Inauguration Day.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In the past, presidential transitions have posed dangerous stumbling blocks for the president-elect, as well as potential political windfalls, all the more so in times of economic emergency or international crisis. What might Obama expect as he navigates the 77-day waiting period?

For the most part, successful president-elects have kept their distance from the incumbent. Transitions hamstring incumbent presidents, particularly if the president-elect hails from the opposing party. It’s worse, of course, if the lame duck has lost his own campaign for re-election.

The transition, an interregnum that lasted four months until 1936, could be a difficult time. President Woodrow Wilson, for example, believed that he “would be without such moral backing from the nation as would be necessary to steady and control our relations with other governments.” Anticipating defeat in his 1916 re-election bid (he won a late, unexpected victory), Wilson worried that he “would be known to be the rejected, not the accredited, spokesman of the country; and yet the accredited spokesman would be without legal authority to speak for the nation.”

Accordingly, lame-duck presidents often try to draw the president-elect into their orbit — to win their endorsement for policies the outgoing leader lacks the political capital to pursue on his own. This year, Obama is already under pressure to cooperate with the Bush administration’s effort to relieve the global financial crisis.

Even before Election Day, Treasury Sec. Henry Paulson Jr. asked the candidates to join him in choosing the person to oversee the dispersal of the $700-billion bailout package. House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), has called on the next president to reach out “to the current president to say, ‘What can we do to work together so that on Jan. 20, I’ve got as big a head start on solving the problems as we can possibly achieve?’ ”

Obama may find it difficult to avoid such entanglements. The freshness and urgency of the economic crisis demand immediate response from the president-elect, but he must somehow avoid tying himself to Bush policies and becoming accountable for them.

Consider that, in December 1992, President-elect Bill Clinton’s transition team publicly endorsed the elder Bush administration’s decision to intensify U.S. military operations in Somalia. A year later, after U.S. forces had to withdraw in defeat after a chaotic battle in the Somali capital, Clinton suffered the political consequences for the failed intervention.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/fdrfiresidechat2.jpgFranklin D. Roosevelt (Wikimedia Commons)

Heady president-elects have avoided such snares. In 1932, as the nation’s financial system unraveled and the Great Depression deepened, incumbent President Herbert Hoover sought President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cooperation for his recovery program. The two men met several times, with Roosevelt calmly reassuring the nation while refusing to endorse Hoover initiatives, which Roosevelt considered anemic or misguided. After three years of depression, Roosevelt understood that any alliance with Hoover, however public-spirited it might seem in the short term, would only limit his freedom of action and tether him to his predecessor’s approach.

But if Obama must evade the warm embrace of President George W. Bush and dissociate himself from the administration’s approach to the financial crisis, he nonetheless needs some dramatic action to seize the agenda and reassure the nation. While assembling his administration remains the essential work of the transition, it will not suffice amid so acute a crisis.

In 1952, for example, Dwight D. Eisenhower redeemed his campaign promise to visit Korea and personally inspect the stalemated war zone. Little of substance came out of Eisenhower’s tour, but the widely publicized event dramatized a commander in control, someone preparing to tackle the nation’s most pressing challenge.

Forty years later, Clinton followed a similar script. Fulfilling his own campaign pledge to focus “like a laser” on the economy, Clinton convened an economic summit of 400 prominent businessmen, labor leaders and economists in Little Rock. The nationally televised event offered no concrete policy advances, but it vividly displayed the incoming chief executive’s mastery of policy detail and empathy for suffering Americans. Clinton seized the agenda even though he as yet lacked the authority to take action.

But while Obama can and must wield influence immediately, the president-elect should roll out specific policies carefully. For months, the presidential nominees have debated the details of campaign proposals, sparring over Obama’s tax plan and Sen. John McCain’s health-care program. Once Election Day passes, however, those plans normally find their way to history’s landfill. The shifting current of daily events and the practical demands of actually getting a bill through Congress relegate campaign rhetoric to the ash heap. Effective president-elects enunciate broad policy principles during the transition without yoking themselves to specific legislation that might quickly become obsolete.

Jimmy Carter suffered that fate in 1976, as he waited for Inauguration Day amid a gnawing and complex economic crisis. Stagflation, the crippling combination of inflation and economic stagnation gripped the United States, and spot fuel shortages complicated the manner.

During the campaign, unemployment had seemed the biggest economic problem and soon after Election Day, the Carter team announced an economic stimulus package. At its heart was a one-time tax rebate: $50 for each taxpayer as a quick, concentrated dose of stimulus.

But two months later, when President Carter took office, the economy had emerged from its doldrums. Unemployment had stabilized and inflation seemed to be the biggest threat. Carter canceled the rebate, infuriating legislative leaders who had worked hard to shepherd his proposal through Congress and earning the president a reputation for waffling and vacillation that he would never shake.

For better or worse, transitions can create lasting impressions: they can establish templates of effectiveness or create enduring images of incompetence that hamstring a president for years. “This victory alone,” Obama explained in his victory speech last Tuesday, “is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.”

Opportunity and peril began last Wednesday.

Bruce J. Schulman is the Huntington professor of American history at Boston University. H**is latest book, co-edited with Julian E. Zelizer, is “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s.” He is the author of* “The ’70s: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics,” “Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism” and “From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt : Federal Policy, Economic Development and the Transformation of the South 1938-1980.” *

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