Transition sets stage for entire presidency

By Lee Hamilton
Dec 2 2008

 Every four or eight years, a presidential transition comes to Washington. The difficulties of governing are amplified by the challenges of assembling a new administration (75,000 applications for 3,000 positions -- that is a 4 percent success rate for aspiring public servants).

The current transition takes place in a particularly tough environment. The new president confronts a foreign and domestic agenda as formidable as any of the modern era. America's enemies are well aware of the vulnerabilities in our national security armor during transition. The president-elect must quickly assemble a national security team so Congress can confirm them and hit the ground running.

Additionally, our government is not functioning smoothly. Its bureaucracies are more unwieldy than ever. The congressional appropriations process is in shambles. The confirmation of key appointees is slowed by lengthy background checks and political wrangling. Government contractors are running amok.

The biggest issues in Barack Obama's first months at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. will be the global financial crisis and the economy. His first budget proposal is due to Congress in February, and there will be no room for major initiatives, like the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt or the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson.

Still, Inauguration Day symbolizes the opening of a new chapter in U.S. history, especially given Obama's groundbreaking victory. Jan. 20 will inspire a whirl of emotions, excitement and exhilaration among the winners, disappointment among the losers.

Obama will face two types of challenges: the internal and the external.

Internally, the focus must be on people, policies, priorities and process.

As the adage goes, "personnel is policy." No doubt the president needs people of intelligence, talent and diligence, but personal chemistry is just as important. Getting the president's team up to speed on critical issues is vital. The president should be comfortable with his advisers, and those advisers should work well together. Rivalries, more often than not, impede policymaking.

Early on, the president must transform his campaign promises into specific and detailed initiatives. Among other things, that requires setting clear priorities. Caution is in order for the first 100 days. Setting overly ambitious goals, and failing to achieve them, can make for a rough start.

Avoiding such potholes requires clear lines of communication and procedures for policymaking and crisis management. Especially in the early stages of an administration, the chief of staff is a key player. He must run a tight and disciplined ship, but with enough flexibility to facilitate bold and creative thinking, and he must serve as gatekeeper to the Oval Office. The risk of getting bogged down by the legions of advocates pushing their own agendas and priorities is formidable.

Then there are the external challenges.

The president-elect must get his relations with Congress off to a good start or his initiatives will suffer. The new president must demonstrate that he is in charge without being confrontational, and committed to his proposals without being rigid and dogmatic. He should demonstrate respect for legislators and look for opportunities to work cooperatively.

The media pose another challenge to a new administration. How often should press conferences be held? How should leaks be handled? Developing a strategy for engaging the public through the media is essential.

The transition is a delicate, even crucial, point in any administration. If Obama doesn't get it right, his presidency will suffer.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)