Obama Is The 44th U.S. President; Now What? Barack Obama's transition to the White House will set the stage for his presidency — and for the future of the country. He will be expected to move quickly, and his every decision will receive intense scrutiny.
NPR logo Obama Is The 44th U.S. President; Now What?

Obama Is The 44th U.S. President; Now What?

Let the presidential transition begin: What does the future hold for Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States? Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Let the presidential transition begin: What does the future hold for Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The epic, sweeping, sea-changing 2008 election is one for the history books. The overarching question is answered: Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States.

After defeating Sen. John McCain to become the 44th president, what exactly does Obama do now?

Now is the operative word.

"The world has gotten so speedy," says historian Douglas Brinkley, "that even though Obama will not be inaugurated until Jan. 20, 2009, people will assume that Obama is the president on Wednesday morning, the day after the election."

President Bush "is the lamest of lame-duck presidents we have ever had," says Brinkley, a professor at Rice University and editor of The Reagan Diaries. "Bush is completely ineffective." The economy is unhinged; wars rage overseas; the president's approval ratings have gone to seed.

The Significance Of Transition

Obama will be expected to move quickly, and his every decision will receive intense scrutiny. The way that a president conducts his transition says a lot about the kind of president he will be, according to those who study the changing of the presidential guards.

Paul C. Light, who teaches public service at New York University and specializes in the study of presidential transitions, says that Obama should "open the conversation with the American people" with town-hall meetings or other unfiltered encounters.

Then Obama should go to a stronghold of McCain supporters, like Mississippi or Georgia, Light says, to begin the post-election healing process.

"One would hope that Obama's first meeting would be with McCain," Light says. The larger the margin of victory, "the more important it becomes to try to get McCain's support once McCain returns to the Senate."

The Value Of Discipline

Throughout his campaign, Obama never lost focus. Observers noted his rigor, his relentlessness, his even-keeled demeanor. His campaign kept knocking on doors and taking in campaign donations right through Election Day.

"He has run a disciplined campaign," says political scientist David E. Lewis of Vanderbilt University. Obama "has avoided the upheavals of other campaigns, has not panicked and has begun transition-planning early, which is responsible."

By contrast, Lewis says, Bill Clinton — the last Democrat to win the presidency — was less disciplined in 1992, and his lack of organization during the transition led to a difficult first year.

"His agenda was sidetracked by scandals over the use of FBI files, firing of the White House Travel Office, nomination slip-ups, a $200 haircut and other problems," Lewis says. "Some of this is traced back to his own decision to name a cabinet first rather than a White House staff — and who he selected for his staff. A more experienced, Washington-savvy staff could have arguably smoothed out the transition."

Organizational skills such as Obama's "are absolutely essential to hitting the ground running," Lewis says. The president-elect lacks executive experience, he says, but he is a quick study — and he has the advantage of being able to learn from the mistakes of previous presidents.

Limiting The Agenda

During the campaign, Obama spoke of an array of fences that need mending. But political watchers say he should not try to do too much, too fast. Former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) says that as soon as Obama gets into office, he must shore up the economy.

"Whatever stimulus packages are still needed will make him look like a Santa Claus," says Frenzel, now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

But then Obama will have to do a most unpopular thing — present a budget. During the campaign, Obama promised to go through the budget, line by line, and strike off programs that don't work.

"He will find that the cupboard is not quite bare, but he will also find insufficient resources to do many or most of the things his constituencies expect him to do," Frenzel says. "Nobody will mind a deficit of from half a trillion to $1 trillion in the first year, but if it doesn't decline in the out-years, he's got trouble. He will have particular trouble funding his healthcare program."

James P. Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, says Obama "should choose a narrow set of policy priorities that are achievable and focus most of his energy on those."

If Obama tries to do too much, Pfiffner says, he may not be successful. And he will "get the reputation of not being able to govern."

Reaching Out To Others

The key word for Obama during the transitional period is "consult," says John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. As the president-elect, Obama "should consult economic experts, the congressional leadership, business leaders."

And, Pitney says, "If Obama does not get a filibuster-proof majority, he may consult the Senate Republicans."

As for the Republicans in the House of Representatives, "They may as well go get some old DVDs of The West Wing, Pitney says, "because that's as close to the White House as they will get."

Obama needs to make a handful of appointments that are "astutely bipartisan or non-partisan," says Paul C. Light.

And many of the new Democratic senators and representatives will come from traditionally Republican states and districts, Light says. "They'll tend to vote more Republican than the safe-seat Democrats."

That will make things difficult for Obama in building majorities, Light says, and "the last thing Obama needs is increased polarization of Congress."

Historical Precedents

Obama's reputation may be made even before he gets into the Oval Office. "Yes, Obama will give a great inaugural address," Douglas Brinkley says. "His speech will be one for the ages. It won't matter."

The important thing is the way Obama handles the period between now and mid-January, Brinkley says. He says he expects the new president to turn for inspiration to the same president that he turned to at the beginning of his campaign: Abraham Lincoln. The new president's campaign was launched in the shadow of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln made a political name for himself.

"He has a Lincoln infatuation, coming from Illinois," Brinkley says. "He talks of healing."

One of Obama's favorite books, Brinkley says, is Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Lincoln reached out to his adversaries, and Brinkley says he believes Obama will do the same -– to Republicans such as Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gen. Colin Powell, who was Secretary of State under George W. Bush. Even to John McCain.

And to leaders of other countries.

"He is our first global president," Brinkley says. "He is embraced by people everywhere."