A Revealing Transfer of Power from Bush to Obama

Newswise — The campaign marathon has turned into a transition sprint, with thousands of decisions on personnel, policy and spending to be made in a fraction of the time it took the country to elect a new president.

"Peaceful transitions of power have been a hallmark of the US system of representative democratic governance since the founding of the country," says Dr. Heath Brown, assistant professor of public affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, who researches presidential transitions. "The transfer of power within and between political parties has always occurred in a nonviolent, if not always organized and efficient, fashion."

"One would expect President-Elect Obama to avoid the pitfalls of the most recent Democratic presidential transition," he says of the failures of the Clinton transition in 1992-93. "And for many obvious and other not so obvious reasons, an Obama transition will likely differ from the George W. Bush transition in 2000-01. Bush avoided many of the embarrassing mistakes of his predecessor based partially on the deep well of officials with experience from his father's transition in 1988-89. The subsequent transition was tightly controlled and advisors used much smaller transition teams and much less outside input than in the past. President-Elect Obama's preference during the campaign for large teams of advisors, particularly in the area of foreign policy, would lead one to believe that his organizational style differs from Bush's centralized approach."

Brown suggests Obama may look to the transition model of Ronald Reagan.

"President Reagan's mantra of 'people are policy' may never be more applicable than in 2008," he says. "Reagan believed that political appointees had such a strong influence over federal policy that every position, from agency chiefs to low ranking deputy assistant secretaries, should be decided by the White House."

"Today, this is no easy job. The new president will appoint over 6,000 officials and nearly each one must be fully vetted in the next six months. For department secretaries, it is likely that Obama advisors have already established a short-list of names. But for sub-cabinet positions and Schedule C positions, those jobs given out as political patronage, thousands of resumes and background checks must be evaluated one-by-one."

On top of thousands of appointments, the first president must propose a budget within the first month in office. "During the campaign, Senator Obama vowed to review the federal budget 'line by line'," says Brown. "This may have been effective campaign rhetoric, but it will turn out to be a tedious task of governance. A conservative estimate of the FY09 budget suggests that it is over 2,000 pages long. More importantly, Senator Obama promised major new programs in health care, energy, and the economy. How he delivers on those promises may come down to how he prioritizes them during his transition and in the introduction of his first budget."

In the end, the success of the new president's transition will depend on President Bush, says Brown. "Stories of the 'W' key being removed from White House computers as the Clinton administration scurried from Washington may have been exaggerated, but do reflect the awkwardness of transitions following deeply partisan campaigns. Those negative stories are a lasting and unfortunate dimension of the Clinton legacy, and President Bush could begin to resurrect his public image by making the transition as seamless as possible for President-Elect Obama. "

"Such conciliatory efforts would also, of course, help the country and our new president address the major challenges in foreign and domestic affairs which do not wait patiently while we reassemble our national government," he says.