Barack Obama speaks, and the world listens – more intently, at this point, than it does to the actual president of the United States. President-elect Obama can inspire and alarm, calm markets or add to jitters. And with the nation in economic crisis, he seems keenly aware of that.
Obama has made clear that addressing the economy is his top priority. In his first press conference since the election, he urged Congress to pass an economic stimulus package, and if it failed (or if President Bush failed to sign it), he would push for that as soon as he took office.
But he is avoiding doing anything now, either as a sitting senator or as president-elect, that would give him ownership of decisions made between now and Inauguration Day. Obama will not attend the G-20 meeting on Nov. 15, a summit of world leaders to be convened in Washington for crisis economic talks.
When the Obamas make the customary visit to the White House on Monday, for a tour with the Bushes, Obama has indicated he also expects “a substantive conversation” with the outgoing president. But the mantra of Obama’s transition is clear: There’s only one US president at a time.
Still, Obama already enjoys an important tool of the presidency: the bully pulpit. For now, “that’s the one power he has, to inspire and reassure,” says Paul Light, an expert on presidential transitions at New York University.
In general, “presidents-elect need to be careful about not usurping the president’s authority,” he adds. “Moreover, they need to worry about getting entangled in the outgoing president’s policies.... [Obama] could get easily entrapped into policy choices and positions that will haunt him well into the following year.”
Already, though, Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden have been planning for a possible transition since long before Election Day. The Democratic ticket has been receiving national-security briefings, and, since Nov. 4, they are getting the same briefing Bush gets.
Obama’s transition team began work in early August, according to transition co-chair John Podesta. On Sunday, Mr. Podesta said on Fox News that 100 people now have security clearance so they’re able to be briefed at the relevant agencies on national security, under legislation passed in 2004.
On the transition in economic policy, Podesta said, Obama has designated Georgetown professor Daniel Tarullo as one of his senior economic advisers to be fully briefed on what’s happening at the Treasury Department with the $700 billion bailout package. Mr. Tarullo has already been speaking with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and will meet with him on Monday, Podesta says.
More broadly, Podesta stressed that Obama intends to move quickly to fill top positions. Already, Obama has named his chief of staff, top House Democrat Rep. Rahm Emanuel – a longtime friend from Chicago, experienced White House hand from his days in the Clinton administration, and famously abrasive political operative with a record of accomplishment.
Obama is under pressure, in particular, to name a Treasury secretary as soon as possible. On Fox News Sunday, Podesta said, “Across the board, whether it’s national security; the economy; the senior leadership that will manage healthcare, energy, and the environment, [Obama] intends to move very quickly.”
With the exception of the previous President Bush, Podesta noted, no new president has named a cabinet secretary before December, going back through the Kennedy administration. “I think we’re moving aggressively to build out that core economic team,” he said.
Mr. Emanuel, speaking Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” made news by reaffirming that Obama plans to make a middle-class tax cut a top priority after taking office. That was a central campaign promise, but given the financial crisis – which spurred an expensive bailout of Wall Street, which in turn has caused a spike in the federal budget deficit – some questions had remained over whether Obama would stick with that plan.
Obama’s plan “at this juncture is based on giving 95 percent of working Americans a tax cut,” Emanuel said.
“Over the years, the middle class has been squeezed consistently by rising costs on education, healthcare, and energy, as well as a diminishing income,” he said. “You must have an economic program that focuses on them.”
The appointment of Emanuel raised eyebrows, given a brusque style that contrasts sharply with Obama’s cool demeanor and a campaign known for its lack of drama. Many observers say it portends a “good cop, bad cop” routine in the Obama White House. And some raise concerns about his sharp partisan edge. Emanuel ran the Democrats’ successful effort in the 2006 election to retake control of the House, after 12 years in the minority. But he has his Republican admirers.
“I happen to think that Rahm is exceptionally well qualified for that job,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as chief of staff under President Reagan, speaking at a Brookings Institution forum Friday on the transition. “He will run a White House staff that is very disciplined.”
William Galston, who worked with Emanuel in the Clinton White House, spoke highly of his former colleague’s skills. “Rahm is the most focused and persistent person I’ve ever met in my life, and by appointing him, the president-elect has signaled his determination to have his decisions carried out crisply and accurately,” Mr. Galston says. “Rahm, I think, will also be very good at riding herd on the jostling egos of the White House staff. He’s absolutely fearless, absolutely loyal to his leader.”