The week of pragmatic transition

Karl Smyth
16 November 2008

The significance of the transition period for an incoming presidential administration cannot be overstated: not only does it offer the opportunity for the President-elect to identify the priorities within his or her legislative and policy agenda for the forthcoming term, but it also represents the first true test of managerial acumen at the highest governmental level; just ask Bill Clinton, who endured a number of early and largely self-inflicted blows to his executive authority as a result of tardy mobilization and ill-judged selections for his supporting cast (cf. Zoe Baird).

As such, the actions of the Obama transition team in the coming weeks should not be observered merely for the sake of palace intrigue. Instead, like a candidate's general election campaign, transition offers a fleeting glimpse as to how well prepared a future Obama administration is to meet the challenges ahead, while at the same time acting as a rough indicator as to what the President-elect's advisers believe are the key issues that need to be addressed internally between now and January 20th 2009. Over the brief but fervent period of time that has elapsed since Obama's electoral victory, I would suggest that the following has rung true:

1. The high premium President-elect Obama placed on thorough and well-planned organisation on the campaign trail appears to be an ethos that is likely to follow him into the White House. By selecting a number of senior backroom aides from the aforementioned Clinton administration, such as John Podesta, Rahm Emanuel, and Ron Klain, Obama has shown a receptiveness to receiving counsel from those who have already walked the deceptively perilous path from Blair House to the Oval Office, underlining his desire to avoid the political pitfalls that have befallen previous presidents and set some political momentum in motion in the time between now and Inauguration Day.

2. By appointing Podesta and company to key positions within his administration-wizened veterans of the machinations of Washington the very type of which served as fodder for much of his campaign - rather than fresh-faced outsiders, it appears increasingly clear that if change is to come in the coming years of the Obama era, it will not occur for change's sake alone. If anything, the increasing number of Clintonistas emerging in and around Obama's cadre can be seen as the latest chapter in an evolution which has seen the lofty yet somewhat insubstantial spirit of idealism synonymous with the Illinois senator's early campaigning gradually replaced by an approach to presidential governance more pragmatic and grounded in its tone.

3. Gains in the House and Senate and an inspirational and historic general electoral victory aside, there are still bridges to be rebuilt within the Democratic Party as a consequence of a much prolonged and painful primary season, lest it suffer the same fragmentation that is beginning to consume its Republican counterpart. For their part, Obama and his team appear keen to begin the healing process sooner rather than later, as illustrated by the President-elect's modern rhetoric during this week over Joe Liebermann's future with the Democratic Party, and perhaps more vividly the choice - if the rumours are to be believed - of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State over more obvious and experienced candidates such as John Kerry, Bill Richardson or Republican Richard Lugar.

All this, and not even a Cabinet position filled. Interesting times ahead.

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