To the victor belongs the job of actually governing
On Nov. 5, either Barack Obama or John McCain will abruptly pivot from campaigning and begin a frenzied dash to Inauguration Day. The election winner will have 77 days to put together a government, set critical priorities and rework a federal budget flooded with red ink — under the pressure of two wars and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
This will be the first wartime presidential transition in 40 years and the first in the age of terrorism anxieties after Sept. 11, 2001. Government planners worry about a window of vulnerability in the first days and months of a new presidency when thousands of administration jobs have not been filled yet and a newly elected Congress is just settling in.
"Don't worry about jinxing the campaign or being too presumptuous," urges White House transition expert Clay Johnson, who says post-election planning should have been under way for months. "It is irresponsible for anybody who could be president not to prepare to govern effectively from day one."
The country — and the world — will be watching.
Which campaign promises will actually be backed up with hard cash? Just weeks after taking office, the new president has to present a new budget reflecting hard decisions. More broadly, the transition will set the tone for his administration, lay the foundation for a relationship with Congress and offer the country a preview of the new president's governing style.
"How you start out is crucial," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist who has written extensively about the presidency. "The public is listening. The Washington community is willing (to cooperate). Most presidents get time at the beginning to talk about what they want to talk about. You also establish a reputation and that can work for good or for ill."
Weary of eight years of the unpopular administration of President Bush and fretting over the economy, the nation is eager for new ideas and fresh faces. A carefully prepared transition can buy goodwill for Obama or McCain in the administration's opening days. Or, like Bill Clinton, a new president can get tripped up with poorly vetted nominations that have to be rescinded and campaign promises that pinch, like a 25 percent cut in White House staff. Obama has promised no lobbyist will be on his White House staff.
The sheer numbers can be daunting for any new administration. The president-elect can brace himself for 40,000 job seekers in the first few weeks — and 75,000 in the first few months. By one estimate, there are 7,840 presidential appointee jobs to be filled, including 1,177 requiring Senate confirmation.
The Obama and McCain camps are loath to talk about transition efforts, but in fact their operations are under way.
Obama's transition team recently held a large organizational meeting as part of an accelerated effort to plan for a possible new administration. Led by John Podesta, President Clinton's White House chief of staff, the team includes a dozen separate groups divided into different areas of responsibility, headed by longtime Obama associate Cassandra Butts.
McCain's transition effort is headed by John Lehman, a Navy secretary under President Reagan and a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.
President Bush's transition was condensed by post-election uncertainty over who won, but he was ahead of the game because he had appointed Johnson as transition chief in the spring of 1999, more than a year before the election.
Johnson, who is helping White House planning for Bush's successor, gave Congress a detailed list of recommendations for the next administration on how to handle the turnover. Among his recommendations and observations, in addition to his estimates on the numbers of jobs and job-seekers:
— Choose Cabinet members by Christmas and have them briefed and ready for confirmation hearings by about Jan. 10.
— Set a goal to have 100 Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials in place by April 1 and 400 by August. But be prepared for disappointment. No administration has had confirmed more than about 25 Cabinet and sub-Cabinet personnel by April 1 or more than about 240 by its eighth month.
"The president-elect's staff and advisers want to celebrate and recover from the grueling campaign but they can't," Johnson told Congress. Instead, he said, they have to get ready to govern and deliver on their campaign promises.
Kumar, the Towson political scientist, said the president-elect should name his chief of staff and other key White House advisers in early November to get the ball rolling.
The new administration will walk into a bare-bones White House with no institutional memory waiting to support them, she said.
There will be no files waiting for the president and his team to learn from, other than in the National Security Council and the counsel's office, she said. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 requires that presidential records leave the White House with the outgoing president.
Congress has set aside more than $19 million for transition activities, including $8.5 million for the General Services Administration, which provides office space, computers, telephones and other services for the transition team. Last week Bush signed an executive order creating a presidential transition coordinating council to smooth the way for the next administration.