Obama's Transition: As Tough As Lincoln's? President-elect Barack Obama's transition from the Bush administration to his own Cabinet and staff will be the toughest since the Civil War, according to Paul Light of New York University's School of Public Service. "There are enough Republicans in the Senate to place legislative holds on nominations," Light said.
NPR logo

Obama's Transition: As Tough As Lincoln's?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96835749/96844932" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Obama's Transition: As Tough As Lincoln's?

Obama's Transition: As Tough As Lincoln's?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96835749/96844932" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Only a week has passed since the election, and the Obama transition team is already immersed in preparations for the handoff of power. Professor Paul Light has called this the most difficult transition since President Lincoln entered office. Light teaches at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and he joins us from our New York bureau. Good morning.

Dr. PAUL LIGHT (Professor of Public Service, NYU Wagner): Good morning.

SHAPIRO: Really the most difficult transition since Lincoln? Worse than World War I, World War II, the Great Depression?

Dr. LIGHT: I'm thinking. You know, between his election and inauguration, seven states seceded from the union. We still don't know what will happen when Palin goes back to Alaska, but I suspect that we're not going to have quite that kind of tension.

SHAPIRO: Hopefully not.

Dr. LIGHT: Yeah. You know, and Roosevelt's transition was very difficult, of course. But we weren't fighting two wars. And that's clearly not the case for Obama.

SHAPIRO: Well, what can the Obama team do to make the transition go more smoothly?

Dr. LIGHT: You know, they've already done a lot. They have been working on the transition for months and months. They have very detailed plans for taking the reins of power.

SHAPIRO: You know, the Bush people and the Obama people have both been out there saying we're working so hard to make this a smooth transition. Is there as much cooperation as they make it sound like there is?

Dr. LIGHT: Well, I think there is to a point. Everybody is so nice. And there are a lot of people who are saying the Bush people want to make this transition part of their legacy. Look at how wonderful we were. But at the end of the day, this is not a tea party. The Bush people are working on all sorts of directives and regulations that they want to see promulgated within the next few weeks, and the Obama people want to find out what's coming so they can stop it. The Obama people are taking over, and they don't like where the Bush administration has been. And they are going to reverse course very rapidly and hope to put some pressure on the Bush administration to back down.

SHAPIRO: Are there mistakes that Obama's predecessors have made that he could learn from?

Dr. LIGHT: You know, he's already learned the most important lesson, which is to integrate the transition planning operation with the political operation. The Clinton administration and the Carter administration both had problems because the two operations were completely isolated. And when the election was over, the campaign people said, hey, we got this guy elected, we want a piece of the action on the transition. And everything fell apart from that point.

SHAPIRO: It seems as though everybody is scrutinizing the nominations that Obama makes, and they'll be scrutinizing the confirmation process as well. Does the fact that there are over 55 Democrats in the Senate right now mean that he's going to have an easier time of this than some of his predecessors have had?

Dr. LIGHT: Depends. There are enough Republicans in the Senate to place legislative holds on nominations. One thing we absolutely can guarantee is that there will be a bad nomination. Every administration has had one. The question is what the president will do about it when it happens. But every administration since 1961, since the Kennedy administration, has been slower in moving nominees forward than its predecessors. And Obama will be lucky to have his Cabinet in place by his first anniversary in office.

SHAPIRO: How ambitious do you think he can be in that first year?

Dr. LIGHT: Depends. I think he should be looking at John Kennedy's New Frontier. That's a pretty good model for what Obama might be able to do. There are lots of people saying, well, he should have a new New Deal, he should have a new Great Society, but I just don't think Congress can handle a big agenda right now, and I don't think pushing one through a concrete pipe is going to make it happen. But he can establish a strong forward presence on 2013. That's going to be the big year for Barack Obama. And that's where he's going to get his Great Society, if he's going to get one at all.

SHAPIRO: What about the specific promises that he made on the campaign trail: a middle class tax cut, health care reform, alternative energy research? Politically is it important for him to get that done and fulfill those promises?

Dr. LIGHT: Well, I think he's certainly going to get the stimulus package, some tax cuts, energy - alternative energy maybe, depending on whether he can characterize it as a jobs program. You know, he's going to be most successful in reclassifying his spending programs as jobs programs because we're willing to throw practically any amount of money at the economy right now.

Now if you can make health care insurance look like it's going to employ millions and millions of workers, then maybe he can have it. But he's got to make some tough choices - I think he understands that - and get some things on the statute books that he cares about, and then look forward to his fifth year in office, which could be very, very significant.

SHAPIRO: Paul Light is author of the new book "A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It." Professor Light, good to talk with you.

Dr. LIGHT: Absolutely.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.