Obama Looks To Reagan For Transition Model

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President-elect Barack Obama's transition team is expected to take tips from Ronald Reagan's carefully orchestrated transition. James P. Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of The Strategic Presidency: Hitting The Ground Running, says that Obama, like Reagan, seems to have started planning early.


The Obama-Biden transition team includes several former Clinton White House staffers but people close to the president-elect say his team will try to avoid missteps made during the rocky Clinton transition. Instead, the model is Ronald Reagan's carefully orchestrated transition after the 1980 election. So we turn now to someone who's closely studied that transfer of power. James Pfiffner is a professor of public policy at George Mason University. He worked in the office of personnel manage under Carter and he wrote a book called the "The Strategic Presidency: Hitting The Ground Running." Welcome to the program, Professor Pfiffner.

Mr. JAMES PFIFFNER (Professor, George Mason University): Thank you very much, Michele.

NORRIS: Reagan's transition has been held up as a model of efficiency. What did they do to earn that reputation?

Mr. PFIFFNER: Well first of all, it was in contrast to the Carter transition and Jimmy Carter was the first president to take transition seriously by devoting resources to it even before the election. And there were a number of problems there. But when Ronald Reagan came in they studied very carefully the Carter administration and previous ones and did an excellent job. First, they did a lot of early planning, they had transition teams ready, they studied all the policies and so forth. But personnel is a key thing. They hired Pendleton James, a head hunter, to set up a shop in April of 1980 and started preparing the personnel. And he

NORRIS: April, April, months before the election.

Mr. PFIFFNER: Very much and very quietly, of course, because you don't to appear presumptuous, but it's the wise thing to do. In addition to that, they prepared the budget, David Stockman had been in Congress, knew the budget backward and forward. And the White House staff was organized early, there was clearly a chief of staff James Baker and he was in charge. And there was no conflict between the campaign and the transition, because often the campaign people can be very jealous, thinking, you know, those people are planning the transition dividing the spoils of victory. And we're out here on the hustings working to get this candidate elected. But since Edmund Meese was in charge of both of those there was no problem with that and that helped a lot in his transition.

NORRIS: Now, are you seeing parallels in the Obama campaign and transition to what you're describing now from the Reagan transition?

PFIFFNER: Yes, I do think there are parallels, because it looks like this was prepared carefully and had competent people doing it. Now, most of it was secret, I have no inside knowledge of this, but they really look like they have been working on it for a while. And one of the keys is designating the chief - White House chief of staff early, which they did with Rahm Emanuel. Unlike the Clinton administration which came in spent a lot of time on designating the cabinet, and then didn't get to the White House staff until January and that was very problematical. Somebody short of the president-elect has got to be in charge.

NORRIS: Now, when you look at the economic crisis that we find ourselves in right now. There are clear and obvious parallels between 2008 and that transition in 1980. Ronald Reagan also inherited an economic crisis when he came into office - inflation was at 12 percent, interest rates were hovering around 20 percent. In that sense, how does the 40th president provide a model for the 44th?

PFIFFNER: Well, the economy certainly is large problem, and a lot of tension is being devoted to it now. Ronald Reagan also came in with a challenge in terms of the economy. And the key thing I think with the Reagan transition was that they focus on the narrow range of policy priorities. In contrast, say to Jimmy Carter who had all sorts of policy proposals and refused to set priorities. Ronald Reagan chose just a narrow set of priorities all having to do with his economic plan, they had a budget ready to go very early and as a result of that they were very successful in getting their major priorities through by the end of the summer.

NORRIS: We're really talking about the passing of a baton here. One president passing the reigns of power to the other. How important is it for an incoming president to work with the sitting president sort of in good faith during that difficult almost two month transition period?

Professor PFIFFNER: It's crucial but it seems that most outgoing presidencies are willing to work with the new people, even if it had been a contentious sort of campaign party turnover election and so forth, the people who are leading, really do want to pass on their accumulated wisdom to the people coming in. But the problem often is that the people coming in are somewhat arrogant, they're running on adrenaline, they've done in an almost impossible thing of winning the presidency, and often they're not willing to listen to the people going out. And so, that's a very important thing that the new people should listen, and people that are designated for Cabinet positions and so forth should be sure to talk with their predecessors because they can learn a lot from them.

NORRIS: Professor Pfiffner, it's been good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Professor PFIFFNER: Thank you very much, Michele.

NORRIS: James Pfiffner is a professor of public policy at George Mason University. He's also the author of "The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running."

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