A Drama-Free Transition?

When it comes to the transition, the most important cliché is this: If you know, you don't say, and if you say, you don't know. The work going on among the Agency Review teams and the personnel office remains hidden, leaving reporters to fixate on high-level appointments. And there haven't been many. Sure, Rahm Emanuel publicly agonized over his appointment for a few days, and there have been constant (and conflicting) reports about Hillary Clinton's potential role as secretary of state. But standards have dropped: In the past, good insider information told who was stabbing whom in the back to become Treasury secretary. Now the press just wants to know who got the job. Pretty please?

Amidst the begging -- and I don't exempt myself -- the real news is that this has been an unusually straightforward transition, and one that promises to maintain the contemporary presidential tradition of concentrating power in the White House.

Don't believe no-drama Obama is still in charge? Compare the current situation to past administration hand-offs. Jimmy Carter's transition leader, Jack Watson, immediately got involved in a very public territory battle with another senior Carter aide, Hamilton Jordan, and his messy transition became the counterpoint to the Reagan administration's disciplined and now-archetypal approach to the task. Bill Clinton's first press conference after his election included the accidental roll-out of his support for gays in the military. The Clinton transition process was famously leaky and moved at a much slower pace than Obama's. Around this time in 1992, Clinton, the last president to have the comparative luxury of a full-length transition, had yet to announce his Agency Review teams or White House staff appointments. Even immediately after the election, his aides publicly squabbled over who would head his transition, with one staff member calling the situation an "ugly, bloody mess." You don't hear that about the current effort.

But the opposite course is not the right one, either. While George W. Bush's transition in 2000 was truncated thanks to confusion about the outcome of the election, it generally ran smoothly. Still, a tightly-run ship with few press leaks came at the cost of an unhappy Congress that resented being left out of the process. Some transition aides learned the results of the appointments they worked on from the media. The Obama transition has not displayed the virtually air-tight secrecy of the Bush transition, but Obama's approach -- which included top congressional aides early on -- arguably resulted in a better, though inevitably more public, process, given the wider circle of clued-in participants.

Thus far, we've seen no policy gaffes from Obama and no public fights over specific appointments, except for some pushback among women's groups regarding rumors that former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers is again being considered for the position. Georgetown government professor and presidential expert Stephen J. Wayne observed "a highly professional transition," thanks in part to the cooperation of the White House's current incumbent.

The Obama-Biden transition learned from the mistakes of the last Democratic president. Clinton, who tried to build a "cabinet that looked like America," appointed a less-than-qualified personal friend to be his White House chief of staff, a decision that led to a chaotic, uncoordinated administration and a difficult first year. Obama, conversely, has focused on creating the White House operations team, starting with Chief of Staff Emanuel, before going forward to identify, vet, and designate potential cabinet appointees. In making this choice, the Obama team shows more than a nodding familiarity with a D.C. open secret: Most of the cabinet isn't all that important.

"The cabinet ceased to be a policymaking advisory body after the Eisenhower administration," Wayne told the Prospect. "The only function of the cabinet that I can find is a group picture at the beginning of the administration."

Most agency heads are simply administrators, which is exactly why the "Team of Rivals" cliché cheerfully batted around like a cat toy in Beltway circles has such little relevance. Taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin's pop history, the phrase refers to Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, peopled with his rivals from the nascent Republican party. But Wayne points out that at the time secretaries were relatively autonomous and relied on their own political bases to push policy through Congress. Matthew Pinsker observed in the Los Angeles Times that Lincoln's cabinet of rivals was, in fact, quite dysfunctional. Today's secretaries, though they provide advice on an issue-by-issue basis and deploy regulatory authority, generally do what the White House tells them.

Will Obama let his cabinet secretaries have a free hand? It doesn't seem likely. His administration may be more relaxed than his predecessor's in terms of allowing agencies to do some of their own policy planning, but don't expect even high profile officials to make many decisions on their own. John Podesta, the transition chief, dryly noted at a press briefing that "the policy development process needs to be well-coordinated at the White House level," indicating that the various policy councils -- as opposed to cabinet members -- will continue to drive presidential programs. Transition aides say they aren't ready to discuss these kinds of organizational issues yet.

At the end of the day, the most the media has been able to complain about is the presence of former Clinton officials in the administration. There's not much substance to that complaint, since they have relevant experience, and the new administration has a lot on its plate. In fact, it's way too early for the press or anyone else to complain about the president-elect not bringing enough change to Washington. For Obama, change means actual policy results, not the process stuff that most average citizens don't care too much about (quick, name the current White House deputy chief of staff!). At the end of the day, the transition is just an appetizer for this spring's main course: the agenda-setting battles over regulations and legislation. Nevertheless, the Washington press wants to eat its dessert first and start off with the recriminations.

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