As presidential transitions go, this one has lasted about as long (11 weeks) as most. It just seems like it has lasted forever, kind of the way the last two months of school used to drag on before summer vacation finally arrived. (And why did that vacation period then always fly by like some kind of super-sonic jet?)
Any election of a new president (as opposed to the re-election of a sitting president) brings a sense of excitement, even optimism. This feeling is especially so when the new president is from the other party, since changes of party in the White House usually mean new policies, which the voters apparently wanted (otherwise, they would have kept the old president’s party in power).
But with all that said, this transition period has been marked by two very strong perceptions. The first is that it has lasted far too long, and the second is that in spite of dire economic conditions, hope and optimism abound.
Both of these perceptions are generated by the energy that Barack Obama has brought to his work. From the moment he secured his victory, he has been a study in preparation for the biggest job his country has to offer. Yes, he did take a holiday vacation, but even then the sense was that he was working on the plans he has for his administration.
Prior to and since that brief break, he was and has been all business. He picked his cabinet faster than any of his predecessors, he fashioned an economic recovery plan that he wants on his desk shortly after he takes office, and he has created a sense of confidence about himself that is inspiring, even in the face of a few slips and the inevitable glitches that were bound to occur.
And so, as the days of Bush finally dwindle down to a precious few, and as the ascendency of Obama is all but upon us, here’s a review of the actions taken so far by the new guy and what they may portend for his presidency.
The Cabinet – Say what you will, Obama has chosen an impressive group to administer the federal government. All have solid resumes and obvious talent. The questions are whether he has chosen the right people for the right jobs and whether they reflect his intentions regarding the directions he wants to pursue.
Obama says he wanted the best people he could find for each position and that he will set the policies he expects them to carry out. But some appointees (Tim Geithner for Treasury, Larry Summers for Economic Council, Robert Gates to continue in Defense, for example) seem to represent the policies of the past, leading liberals to wonder just how liberal Obama really is.
Others (Hillary Clinton for State, Leon Panetta for CIA, Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff) may have great talent but be ill-suited for the specific assignments they’ve been given.
Obama sloughs off these concerns with an air of confidence that suggests he knows what he’s doing, and to this point, the country (as indicated by the editorial page, OpEd and blog coverage he is getting) is giving him a lot of latitude. Chalk it up to that sense of hope and optimism he has generated.
The Economic Crisis – Obama has tackled the current crisis like he owns it. In this area, he has upstaged the current president in both energy and intellect. His stimulus plan may be too timid (as Nobel Prize recipient Paul Krugman has been shouting for weeks), but it is impressive if for no other reason than that it far exceeds anything Mr. Bush and his team have put forth.
Obama is intent on building bi-partisan support for his plan, and he is likely to get upwards of 80 Senate votes for it, which will certainly reflect Republican and Democratic ownership of it.
He is also, of late, urging release of the remaining TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds, which, coupled with his $800 billion plan will make $1.15 trillion in deficit spending he will create in his first 100 days in office.
That kind of ambitious plan will either kill the patient or cure it. Again, though, the energy and the focused commitment are drawing praise, even if the specifics raise eyebrows.
Foreign Policy – Here Obama has been far more low-key in his public acts and statements. “We only have one president at a time,” is too logical to be a cop-out, and the sense is that the President-elect is just biding his time, not wanting to send contrary signals to the world community while the country is still led (ostensibly, at least) by Mr. Bush.
Still, world crises will be waiting for him. If he’s lucky Israel’s assault on Gaza will have been resolved by then, but the scene will be hot nonetheless, as will the unrest in India and Pakistan and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, just to name a few areas that will demand his immediate attention.
Damage Control – He lost his Commerce secretary before he even appeared for his Senate hearing. His choice of a minister to deliver the invocation at his inauguration enraged a key constituency group. His Senate seat may have been offered for sale by his state’s governor, who has now been impeached. All of these events have been potential land mines, but Obama has eluded their impact.
Mainly he has done so by exuding a cool confidence that suggests he has no reason to be defensive and has nothing to hide. He just seems to be above the fray, and to this point, the press and the public seem content to let him stay there.
And so the record for this President-elect during this seemingly interminable period of transition has been good. If he gets an incomplete in some areas, it is only because he hasn’t been tested in them yet. As for the rest, he gets an A for his effort, an A for his optimism, and an A for the hope he inspires.
As he likes to say, “Yes, we can.”
David Spataro says
Ed, I think you’ve downplayed the shock and utter disapproval of Obama’s cabinet selections by individuals who are actually familiar with the work of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner. The most optimistic responses have been that these men are competent technocrats, and that considering the current state of the crisis they simply must understand the failure of all the policies of which they were not just supporters but co-creators. The pessimistic responses, well they weren’t as nice.
In the column, you wrote: “But with all that said, this transition period has been marked by two very strong perceptions. The first is that it has lasted far too long, and the second is that in spite of dire economic conditions, hope and optimism abound.” I would argue that the two very strong perceptions are actually: 1) that Obama, for whatever reason, has disavowed his campaign commitments by selecting neoliberals and hawks to his cabinet; and 2) that despite these bold moves and other miscues (Rick Warren) optimism for the Obama presidency remains high.
There is a very subtle difference between optimism that is productive in times of crisis and optimism that is actually just denial. I think we need to start considering where the former ends and the latter begins when it comes to Obama’s choices.
Thanks so much for your post to my blog. Your points are well taken. I don’t expect Obama to satisfy all of your (or my) concerns and needs. I do expect him to approach problems/crises with the kind of intellectual energy that I think we have seen so far.
We aren’t a far left country. We are, at best, a centrist (most would say center-right) country. No president can ignore that reality if he is to be at all productive and effective. What Obama can do is move the country’s mindset perceptibly to the left over the course of eight years. Doing so won’t satisfy folks like you, but it is the best we can realistically expect/hope for.
Viking Daughter says
Very optimistic post!
Being an optimist myself, I’m going to add that under the circumstances, Obama has exuded confidence and optimism. Isn’t this what our country needs now?
As for his cabinet choices, I didn’t personally agree with all of them, however we can agree they are highly qualified. I did not want Hillary as President, but feel her role as Secretary of State is one she can definitely handle. I feel there is a mutual respect between her and Pres. elect Obama.
His foreign policy? He has his work more than cut out.
Trying to please the entire world who are expecting a more ”balanced” approach to foreign issues. He commented on Mumbai, and is now facing the displeasure of many for not commenting on Gaza. I think he’s made his arguement valid, one president at a time. Israel will most likely end this for the sake of not wanting to antagonize a new President.
Despite facing a very uncertain Middle East in terms of Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan, I personally hope he charges head on into the U.S. economic crisis. It’s time for the U.S. to save itself and focus on our country, our crisis, our people.
I didn’t choose this President, however, I think he’s doing a splendid job so far, and I totally support him.
The appointments are made with a technocratic bend. It’s at least a step up from recent cronyism. (Although one could speculate whether some of the appointments, although rationally-founded, might also be Obama paying some political debts.)
What is interesting about this transition (I was not really politically aware the last time a transition team began their transition in November, so this might be universal) is that they are still working in the hypothetical. Obama has still not really done anything, and neither has his cabinet and administration. Obama’s lack of liberal intensity is made up for his perspective and ability to at least appear unifying. Regarding his cabinet, we need to think of him as a manager and his cabinet as employees. If Obama’s mystique is correct, these pieces, albeit somewhat based on perception, can still be successful. Hopefully, the whole administration will be greater than the parts (politicians) taken individually.
David Spataro says
This is a response to Ed’s response to my comment but also to Viking Daughter, who wrote that we can agree that Obama’s appointments are all highly qualified. I simply cannot agree on this statement. And this is not an issue of whether or not the country is conservative or liberal; this is simply an issue of management.
Perhaps an analogy will help to make my point. Ed, let’s say you’ve been placed in charge of a business that has lost some of its dynamism and its profitability. The previous FOUR managers had all followed the same policies for the most part, and there is no question that those policies have led to the company’s current state of affairs. It is your job to alter the policies and do something different. Now, here is the question: would it be kosher for you to choose as your management team multiple people who were not just supporters but also the creators of the policies from which you are supposedly moving away? It’s a rhetorical question because the obvious answer is that, Ed, if you made that decision as a leader of the company–or the school, or the country, or whatever–you would not have that position for very long.
Now, let’s cut to the chase. The real question is why did Obama make these so obviously poor decisions?
As long as Obama keeps control of policy decisions, he will do well with brilliant folks like Geithner and Summers carrying them out.
Let’s be honest here David. You’re looking for reasons to confirm your antipathy to Obama as a way to justify your desire for a Nader-like candidate.
Obama will never satisfy you, because he is not a Nader clone. He’s a left-of-center politician who primarily seeks to find out what will work and then implement it.
You need to cool your jets, lefties. We elected a traditional Democrat, and if you study your history, you’ll see that FDR and JFK were cut of exactly the same cloth. The leader you want isn’t electable in this country. (They do pretty well in Venezuela, though.)
And his choices are not “obviously poor.” They just aren’t representative of the kind of leadership you want.
So here’s the answer to your question, David: As long as Obama keeps the far left of his party unhappy, he’ll be very popular, and a great president.
Sounds like Dave has touched a nerve, here. This thread has a tangible acrimony between the left and the center, as evidenced by your debased response here, Dad. Why does Obama want to appease conservatives so badly? Why did he stand between the two Bush’s in that blue tie? Carter is easily the best living president – his domestic policies stand as the most successful – and he was clearly snubbed, as was Clinton to a large degree. That was clearly a marketing/publicity maneuver to appeal to the right-of-center. Don’t worry, everyone! We aren’t crazy radical nuts like those other Dems! (At least put Obama in the center of the 5, between W and Bill. Gosh.)
CHANGE.GOV is the guy’s freakin slogan. Dave’s point is simple: so far, this is not change. This appears to stifle it. One doesn’t have to seek to confirm his antipathy to see that. If this country voted him in on the premise of change, we’d like to see some, and not just in the issue of competence vs incompetence. Outshining Bush doesn’t take much, and if that’s all the token change we get, that’s sad. Seeing him chum up to the current power – arch conservatives – is nauseating, and uncalled for, regardless of the political strategy.
On an optimistic note, at least there’s this: http://www.worldnetdaily.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=86120
Viking Daughter says
”Now, here is the question: would it be kosher for you to choose as your management team multiple …….”
David, I can totally relate to your analogy, however I think Obama’s call for change could backfire if he put a totally new cabinet together. One of my first concerns about Obama was his lack of experience. I’m still a bit nervous about this.
For example, I in no way supported Hillary for President. That being said, I thought she was a perfect choice for S. of S. She knows foreign policy, is comfy in the White House, and is a mother unlike Condie. My gut feeling is she would seek peace before firing.
We have to ”ease” into change, and I feel changing the entire scenario in one huge move could be disasterous. Bottom line is….Obama is the President. I didn’t vote for him, but I am accepting enough to support the countries choice. Our country needs unity. Period.