Friday, October 31, 2008

Smooth Transitioning: Using the Clinton Experience as a Model of What Not To Do


It seems that over the last few days speculation is running rampant on who would populate a Barack Obama administration. Though much of this speculation has surrounded who would be tapped as chief of staff, the game has moved on to other positions. Ben Smith of Politico has an excellent rundown of the potential musical chairs that would take place in the event of an Obama victory.

Two strands run through all these various stories: 1) Obama would move with light speed to lock up his White House staff and cabinet; and, 2) an Obama administration would be dominated by former Clinton staffers. If true on both counts, this would be a smart move by the Obama folks.


The Clinton transition was a disaster for a number of reasons, not least of which was because it moved at a glacial pace. The White House staff was not in place until just before the inaugural on January 20, 1993--far too late to properly organize for the flurry of events that will face the White House in just Week 1.

Also, because of the prejudices due to the perceived failure of the Carter White House, experienced Carter aides were essentially blacklisted from being hired at the outset of the Clinton administration. Instead, young campaign staffers who had never worked in Washington before or done much of anything in politics except working on campaigns were placed into all sorts of high level positions on the White House staff. Thus, the Clinton White House bus in those first days was driven by a bunch of youngsters who had just gotten their temporary licenses and were handed the keys to drive in a city in which they were unfamiliar. In other words: a recipe for disaster.


Obama and his team, if the reporting is correct, seems to have learned the lessons of the 1993 fiasco. Picking a team of experienced White House aides early is the surest way to hit the ground running. A drawback is that leaves only one bench of White House veterans for Obama to draw on: former Clinton officials. The Carter people, for the most part, are too old. The pace of the White House and the 80 hour work weeks dictates that the staff as a whole be younger, at least in many of the middle and lower rungs. However, this does not mean that an Obama White House would only have former Clintonistas in it. It would surely be peppered with campaign staff and Illinois loyalists. However, the Clinton folks would make up the largest contingent--as they should. A new White House needs to draw on veteran hands--people who know how the place operates and where the bodies are buried.

Drawing on Republicans to Fill Out an Obama Cabinet

I suspect, as do others writing on this topic, that a President-elect Obama would go out of his way to pick a few high-profile Republicans to place in his cabinet. If I were a gambling man and had money to burn, here would be my picks for two of the most important cabinet posts.

Secretary of Defense

Colin Powell. It is doubtful that Obama or Powell would want Powell to take another turn at State. Given his years of military service and the difficult situation the U.S. military is in right now, Powell would be a smart choice.

Another possibility is that Obama would ask Robert Gates to stay on for a year or two. Gates is well-respected on both sides of the aisle. What better way to calm the fears of the defense establishment than to continue with the sitting Defense Secretary?

Secretary of State

Richard Lugar (R-IN). Perhaps the most respected foreign policy mind in the U.S. Senate. Could Obama convince Lugar to give up his seat on Foreign Relations as ranking member? Probably. He would be a great fit.

Another possibility: Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE). Hagel and Obama get along well and Hagel's wife publicly supports Obama (Hagel won't tell who he's voting for--which means he's an Obama guy). A Vietnam vet who has never been shy about speaking his mind on the Iraq War, he would also be a smart pick.

Obama's Chief of Staff?

I've seen a few articles lately discussing the Obama transition operation and a potential chief of staff in the offing. It has been speculated that Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) will be/has been asked to serve as White House chief of staff in an Obama administration. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart as I have studied this White House position for the last 10 years, published articles on the topic, and am co-authoring a book on this very subject.

Here is my take. First, it is entirely appropriate for presidential candidates to be thinking about and planning their transition at this point. In fact, both candidates should have been doing this months ago (see the White House Transition Project on this important topic). Barack Obama has been; John McCain started later, perhaps too late. Second, it would not be unprecedented for a presidential candidate to ask someone to serve as chief of staff before Election Day. George W. Bush did this with Andy Card and it helped the transition immensely. Third, the president-elect would be well-served picking someone with Washington and White House experience. The last 4 chiefs: Erskine Bowles, John Podesta, Andy Card, and Josh Bolten all served in the White House previously as deputy chief of staff before being elevated to chief--a huge advantage for a prospective chief.

Rahm Emanuel and former Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) have been named as potential chiefs. Emanuel makes a lot of sense--he worked previously at the highest levels of the Clinton White House and would be very familiar with the job and navigating the Beltway. His Congressional connections and credentials help. There are a few reasons why I think he would be reluctant to serve as chief: 1) he has 3 small children and his family lives in Chicago. The chief of staff job is the most time-consuming staff job in the White House--he would rarely see his wife and children. 2) He reportedly has aspirations to be Speaker of the House. He is high-up in the House leadership and has a trajectory which would likely result in him being Speaker in a decade or so should he remain in the House and Democrats maintain control. Becoming chief disrupts this trajectory. 3) He may be appointed to replace Obama in the Senate.

One reason why Obama might be reluctant to pick Emanuel: he has a very strong personality. The most effective chiefs get the most out of their subordinates because of the immense respect they command (e.g., Bolten, Card, Podesta, Leon Panetta); some of the weakest chiefs rule by fear and end up poisoning the well, so-to-speak (e.g., Don Regan, H.R. Haldeman). I'm not inferring Emanuel would morph into Haldeman or Regan, just that his personality could overpower and intimidate those in the lower rungs of the White House. However, a positive aspect of his forceful personality would likely be a disciplined White House staff. His immense political skill would also be a plus in the chief's role. Perhaps reprising his position from the Clinton White House as a senior adviser or counselor to the president, ala Karl Rove or Dan Bartlett, might make more sense.

Although I think Daschle will be a part of an Obama administration, I see him in a different role than chief--one his more laid-back personality and quiet demeanor is more suited to: perhaps OMB Director or Secretary of Agriculture.

Here's a pick for chief of staff I have yet to see speculated about much: John Podesta. Not only was he very successful as Clinton's last chief--surviving the Clinton impeachment crisis and keeping the White House staff from imploding--he's running Obama's transition team. Who better to make chief than a former chief himself who is functioning in the top transition post already? I wouldn't be surprised if this was already a done deal. If Podesta were to be the chief, his role as transition director allows him to hand pick his White House staff and hit the ground running as soon as the feet hit the pavement.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stevens Guilty

Longtime Alaska Senator was convicted today by a jury of violating ethics laws. The 84 year old could spent the rest of his days in prison.

Should he win his reelction bid against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, the Senate Ethics Committee would have to decide whther or not to expel him from the chamber. His reelection is seriously in doubt, though, as he was in a dead heat before his guilty conviction. His numbers will likely tumble after this.

Stevens is just the latest member of Congress indicted and convicted for wrong doing in the 21st Century. Others on that notorious list include Randall Cunningham (R-CA) & Bob Ney (R-OH) who both headed to federal prison after their convictions.

Every time something like this happens, regardless of party, it hurts the image of the institution. When only 1 in 10 Americans approves on the job Congress is doing, there is a major problem. Stevens conviction doesn't help either party in Congress persuade the American public that members of Congress have the best interests of the American public as their number 1 priority.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Recent Ohio Polls Give Obama Edge in Buckeye State

Two new polls give Obama the edge in the Buckeye State. Both the Ohio Newspaper Poll and the Bliss Institute Akron Buckeye Fall Poll gives Obama about a 3-4 point advantage in Ohio, corroborating many other recent polls.

McCain has to win Ohio to have a chance in this election; for Obama it's a luxury. Its been said a million times already--no Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio. The way the electoral math works, this election is no exception. If McCain can't win Pennsylvania, which is almost a certainty at this point, he has to carry Ohio. Even by carrying Ohio though, with Obama looking like he will win Colorado, New Mexico, & Iowa, McCain has to add a Kerry state to his column and that looks really hard at this point.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Who Am I? Why Am I Here?

Who am I? Why am I here? These lines were uttered by Admiral James Stockdale in his opening statement in the 1992 Vice Presidential Debate--perhaps the only memorable lines from any candidate during that event. My inaugural post will try to explain who, why, and what this venture is.

Who? My name is Dave Cohen and I am currently an associate professor of political science and a fellow of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron. The study, observation, and teaching of American Politics is my professional life. My area of specialization is the American presidency but I also follow the U.S. Congress and Ohio politics closely. I am currently co-authoring a book on White House organization and staffing and am focusing on the White House chief of staff in particular. I also was recently named VP in charge of programs for the Akron Press Club--a volunteer position that I find rewarding but it does keep me quite busy.

Ever since I was a small child I have had an affinity for presidents and the presidency. That affinity has not diminished as I have gotten older and I am as interested in the workings of the presidential institution as I ever have been. Thus we get to the why.

Why? The purpose of this blog is actually quite selfish--to provide an outlet for myself to post my observations on the American presidency and politics in general. It is hoped of course that others will find it entertaining and informative.

What? The blog will not be partisan and will not spout propaganda. Instead, I will strive my hardest to look in a critical, but unbiased way, at the institutions and actors in the Beltway and elsewhere. Much of what I will observe will involve the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; however, I will not hesitate to turn my eyes eleswhere. I will also not write in "academese" and instead make my posts intelligible for everyone, not just those crustaceans who work and live in the Ivory Tower. Anyone who knows me can tell you that though I work in a university environment, I am not a typical academic. When it comes to politics, I am fascinated by the real world of brass knuckle politics as it is actually practiced, not the kind of theoretical politics that most academics purport to study and explain. I will be asking many of my colleagues who teach at different institutions to post from time-to-time. They will be asked to do so from a non-partisan point of view as well.

Why now? I thought the conclusion of the 2008 election would be a good time to create the blog. The transition to a new administration is an incredibly important yet undervalued period in our representative government. A transition done well can be an immense boost for the incoming president (e.g., the first 6 months of Bush 43); a transition executed poorly can cause all sorts of needless headaches for the new president (e.g., first year of Clinton). As I am affiliated with a group of academics dedicated to making the transition smoother for the incoming president (White House Transition Project), I thought starting the blog at the beginning of this process made all sorts of sense.

I probably won't be posting much until after the election as I am slammed with work because of the election. I will try to post somewhat regularly after that. I will also start building the links and RSS feeds as we go along. I do hope you enjoy the blog.

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