For Obama, White House clout is now

The president-elect went public this week to reassure Americans he’s on top of the economic crisis.

Charles Dharapak/AP
More advice: Obama named former Fed chair Paul Volcker (l.) on Nov. 26 to head a new Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

America has one president at a time, Team Obama has repeated ad nauseam since Election Day. But the events of the past week have demonstrated otherwise: At an extraordinary time in American history, with the economy staggering and a lame-duck chief executive, the United States now in effect has two presidents.

The current Oval Office occupant, George W. Bush, still runs the government. His administration can, with the blink of an eye, make big things happen – as it did Tuesday with the announcement that it is deploying up to $800 billion to free up consumer lending.

But the soft power belongs to President-elect Barack Obama. His words, or even hints of his intentions, can move markets. Last Friday, when reports leaked that the next Treasury secretary would be New York Federal Reserve head Timothy Geithner, the Dow surged by 500 points.

Since then, Obama has made headlines daily and, beginning Monday, has held three press conferences in three days to announce different elements of his economic team, an unprecedented string for a modern-day president-elect.

Obama has left no doubt as to the urgency of his mission: to reassure the public that he is on top of the ongoing economic crisis and will hit the ground running on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.

“Help is on the way,” Obama said Wednesday, after announcing the establishment of a new Economic Recovery Advisory Board, to be led by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve.

The purpose of the board is to provide the incoming president with “independent, nonpartisan information, analysis, and advice” as he formulates his plans for economic recovery, according to Obama’s office. The board will meet regularly and is an add-on to the day-to-day economic team members Obama announced Monday and Tuesday.

Obama steps into the public arena

The announcement capped an extraordinary stretch, heading into the long weekend, in which an incoming president dominated the actual president in the arena of public messaging. This weekend is particularly important as the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season, a make-or-break time for some businesses. This year, consumers unsure of the future are expected to hold back on their purchases. Obama did not tell Americans to go out and shop, instead choosing to make clear he understands people’s concerns.

Obama’s transformation, in just three weeks, from election victor to quasi copresident demonstrates the perils of leadership transition during a time of crisis. Obama initially sought to stay behind the scenes, remaining mostly in Chicago and making few public appearances. But the clamor from both the American public and the outside world to hear more, and immediately, from the popular president-elect forced a change in tactics.

“The world is insisting that he take steps so as to fill this vacuum,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas, Austin.

President Bush is lying low, for the most part, as Obama takes the spotlight, an approach that Mr. Buchanan calls appropriate.

Bush is doing this “partly because the situation is so unusual, and also because the two men are on opposite poles ideologically on some things,” he says. “Getting into a cat fight, at this point, wouldn’t help much of anybody.”

The apparently harmonious transition, thus far, comes in contrast with the last interregnum during an economic crisis, when Franklin Roosevelt defeated President Herbert Hoover in 1932. Hoover reached out to Roosevelt to craft a joint economic program, but Roosevelt declined. He wanted to take over with a clean slate, not be dragged down by anything associated with his predecessor.

Obama has faced the same challenge. He chose not to take part in meetings with world leaders when they came to Washington two weeks ago for an economic summit, suggesting it was not his place as president-elect to begin acting as if he were already president.

Lessons of the Hoover-Roosevelt era

Now, although Obama and Bush have not attempted to craft any kind of joint solutions to the ongoing economic crisis, their transition has not been marred by acrimony. Obama also appears to be demonstrating the lessons of Roosevelt’s transition to the presidency.

“One thing we learned from the Depression is that you can’t let the economy spiral down, because you may not be able to pick it up,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “Then, the inauguration wasn’t until March. But even in a shorter transition period, Obama recognizes that if he were to stand back and let Bush founder, and the economy were to continue down, he might not be able to pick it up and get it moving. A lot of the commentary that you see is move, and move now, and move strong.”

So even if Obama faces some danger in inserting himself so publicly, before he becomes president, into the still-reeling economy, there would also be danger in hanging back. The last thing he wants is to take office with his political capital already depleted. For now, though, the public is firmly behind him. After winning the election with 53 percent of the vote, Gallup shows about two-thirds of the public consistently expressing confidence in Obama to address the nation’s problems, in several polls.

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