In our August, 2007, report, “Left Turn?” we highlighted that:
For the first time since 1928, it is virtually assured that there will be a
completely new administration in office in 2009, since neither the
incumbent President nor Vice President will likely be running for office.
In subsequent reports10 we highlighted the policies of seven previous
presidents: Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John F.
Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt, and Andrew Jackson. Below we discuss
implications of some of the experiences of “first term populists” for the
incoming Obama administration. And, as we outline, while Obama officially
takes office on January 20, 2009, it’s highly likely that the groundwork for the
transition has already begun.
70 Days of Euphoria and Exhaustion
Political historian Alvin Felzenberg observed11 that:
The 70 days between the election and the swearing-in can be heady times
for the President-elect and his team. They can also be chaotic. After a long
and hard-fought campaign, veterans of the effort experience both the
euphoria and the exhaustion that accompany victory…When people are
tired, stressed, ecstatic, and more than a bit confused about what lies ahead
are not the best time for a President-elect and his closest advisers to make
decisions that will affect the country and world for years to come. Yet, in an
atmosphere conducive to error, they must make many such decisions and in
Felzenberg pointed out that “today, a President-elect appoints as many as
6,000 people to government positions, and about half of these are critical to
the operations of the executive branch.” The historian cited a number of
examples of notable personnel missteps by populist Presidents-elect in those
”70 days of euphoria and exhaustion:”
Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter…made early decisions to give their Cabinet
secretaries primary authority over appointments to key policymaking posts
within their departments. In practice, this decision meant their
administrations similarly were unable to speak with a single voice in key
policy areas. Confusion and even conflict resulted.
Bill Clinton declared early that he wanted his Cabinet to "look like America"
and a woman to serve as Attorney General. These decisions led to speedy,
but sloppy, screening of the potential candidates and resulted in a series of
rapid-fire embarrassments. [Clinton withdrew the names of two female
nominees for attorney general — Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood — because
they had legal problems with hired immigrant household help. Clinton finally
settled on Florida prosecutor Janet Reno for Attorney General.]
Then, too, populist Presidents-elect have also made other errors:
Hasty or ill-considered policy decisions made during a transition can have
ramifications that affect the course of a presidency for years. For example,
the Bay of Pigs operation [involving an invasion of Cuba by U.S.-trained
exiles] under Kennedy [and] Carter's ill-fated energy proposals…had their
origins in poorly planned or executed transitions.
Clinton's transition was marred by the gays in the military12 fiasco that
dominated media attention: Senator Sam Nunn back in August of 1992
heard about the proposal that Mr. Clinton had made, contacted Mr. Clinton,
and warned him about the firestorm that would likely emerge if he went
through with it. Again, it was not advice that President-elect Clinton chose
Looking further back, the political historian pointed out that, in the early days
of the Republic, there was less pressure on the President-elect:
In the simpler past, political parties regarded most positions whose
occupants served at the pleasure of the President as patronage, and filled
them in a manner reminiscent of Andrew Jackson's "spoils" system [i.e., the
placement of friends and supporters into government.] At that time,
however, the federal government was minimal both in size and in the impact
it exerted over American life [italics added].
Note here that Barack Obama shares a few things in common with JFK, Jimmy
Carter, and Bill Clinton: they were all Democrats replacing a Republican
incumbent, they were all young and inexperienced, and they all had a large
working majority — somewhat ominous then are the shaky starts that JFK,
Carter, and Clinton had to their presidencies (which we discuss in detail
As noted above, there will be a completely new administration in office in
2009. The last time the White House switched from the hands of one party to
the other, CNN reported13 on sophomoric pranks by the departing Democrats:
Republican sources told CNN that the pranks included removing the letter
"w" from computer keyboards, forwarding some calls from various offices to
the chief of staff's office and leaving signs on doors poking fun at Bush's
occasional verbal pratfalls, such as one sign saying "Office of the
Strategerie." One Republican with close ties to the Bush White House, who
has been at the White House "a couple of times," told CNN that there was
"trash everywhere," that some phone lines were cut and there was graffiti on
at least one wall. "The condition was appalling," said this Republican official
who did not want to be identified.
But the Republicans themselves are not blameless — The New York Times
Similar pranks were reported in prior transitions, including the one from Mr.
Bush's father to Mr. Clinton in 1993.
Even though fairly innocuous, pranks such as these undoubtedly distract an