Whoever the next president is, he faces a formidable list of very tough tasks. Everywhere he looks — at home and abroad — wildfires are blazing.
In broad stroke, the Herculean issues include a swerving economy, two wars and rumors of more out-of-control health care costs and a warming globe.
"I can't think of any other president who came into office with these multiple crises," says Joan Hoff, a former executive director of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. "Next year will be the messiest inheritance I can think of for any president who was elected and did not come into office accidentally."
Hoff, author of Nixon Reconsidered, says the present administration "has created problems that cannot be resolved easily, if at all, in four years. And so whoever is elected may be perceived to be a failure. All new presidents have to clean up a few things, but nothing like this."
What will the transition team look like? Will it be young or old? Open or guarded? And who will be in the brain trust that the new president assembles to help sort out all the sordid details? McCain, who calls everyone "my friend," is likely to rely on tried-and-true buddies. Obama may cast a wider net.
"If you're going to have a successful transition," says presidential historian Allan J. Lichtman, "the most important thing is to muster the brainpower needed to set policy and implement it." He adds that a new president must also summon an advisory group with seasoned experience and youthful exuberance.
"Franklin Roosevelt had a rocky transition" when he won the 1932 election, says Lichtman, who teaches political science at American University. "The interregnum was too long; he didn't take office until March of 1933. He and Herbert Hoover [the incumbent president] were at loggerheads."
As Roosevelt assumed the presidency, the nation's economy was in a grave depression. Millions of people were unemployed and banks were closed. Long before his inauguration, Roosevelt assembled a transition team of smart advisers who laid out the foundation for what would become the New Deal. "That's where the term 'brain trust' comes from," Lichtman says.
President John F. Kennedy set up task forces to advise him on many issues. His group of advisers, including old hand Clark Clifford, set the pace for modern transition teams. Ronald Reagan surrounded himself with conservatives, such as Edwin Meese (a former deputy district attorney and longtime Reagan aide), who engineered Reagan's transition. Meese later served as attorney general during Reagan's second term.
During his transition in 1992, Bill Clinton put together a two-day Conference on the Economy and brought together more than 300 economists, business people, labor executives and others from all over the country in Little Rock.
This time around, both McCain and Obama are promising transparency in the White House. Will their transitions be carried out in secret or in full view?
Roosevelt met with his pre-inauguration advisers behind closed doors, Lichtman says. Clinton, on the other hand, "used his transition as a public relations device."