Navigating The Transition In — And Out

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President-elect Obama is less than two-and-a-half weeks into his two-and-a-half month transition to the White House. For his staff, it's also a transition out of campaign mode and into that of governing. They are working on the process of finding people to fill hundreds of jobs, both high profile and less so. But behind the scenes, there is also the work of determining just how the Obama White House will be run. And there's the side of transition that involves the outgoing administration, too.

To those who watch presidential transitions very closely, the transfer of power sets the tone for the incoming presidency. In recent weeks, there has been lots of drama as some big names have been floated for some big jobs. But scholars who focus less on the headlines see things another way.

"So far, we're already well ahead of where transitions usually are," says Martha Kumar of Towson University. Kumar says a wise transition tries to learn from the mistakes of past administrations. When President Clinton was elected, the transition was marked by disorganization — something that slowed White House staffing, even in some critical jobs. It bogged things down at the beginning of Clinton's first term.

As for Obama, things are going more smoothly in the early going, but Kumar says there are still big unanswered questions beyond who'll get what Cabinet post. What will his plan for addressing the economic crisis be? How much will he stick to his goal of pulling combat troops from Iraq?

"We don't know what his policy priorities are going to be," Kumar says. "You also have the whole health care situation ... where is that going to fit in? Where is education going to fit in?"

She says the meeting Obama held with his campaign opponent Sen. John McCain and his support for Sen. Joseph Lieberman are both indications of how Obama will reach out to political opponents.

Still, all has not been perfectly choreographed in this transition. The Obama team, known for its tight message discipline during the long campaign, is also finding leaks are harder to stop during a transition, when information on possible nominees has to be shared beyond the inner circle. Take Sen. Hillary Clinton's consideration for secretary of state. Some say it will happen; it may not. Either way, it's been debated loud and long in the media ever since the story leaked last week.

"Well, governing is not quite as clean as campaigning," says Ken Duberstein, a veteran of two previous presidential transitions, while working for Ronald Reagan.

"Governing can sometimes be the sausage-making, and that's what we're starting to see right now," Duberstein says. A longtime Republican political consultant in D.C., Duberstein helped Reagan transition into and out of office. He made news this year when he endorsed Barack Obama for president.

Duberstein has praise for the way the current White House is handling the transition. But Duberstein also recalled something he wishes he hadn't done back on Reagan's final day in office.

"You know a mistake that I made is I asked President Ronald Reagan to come to the Oval Office one more time on Jan. 20, 1989, because he was president until noon. And I never will forget the look on his face as we came off the Colonnade into the office," Duberstein recalls. "And he came in off the Colonnade, and the Oval Office was barren. They'd already cleaned out all the furniture and furnishings."

For Duberstein it was a painful moment, but also a reminder that for every preparation that an incoming president makes, there is a letting-go for the current White House.



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