It may not be as dramatic as a new president coming in to install a totally new regime in Washington. But even as President Obama celebrates his solid reelection victory, he faces a major transition challenge in reshaping his administration for a second term under less-than-ideal circumstances.
The newly triumphant-but-exhausted president is back at the White House and turning his attention to the daunting policy logjams that demand almost immediate action, not to mention the certainty that he will have to make changes in his White House senior staff and Cabinet. His choices will be closely watched for signals about whether Obama will pursue a more cooperative approach with Republicans in Congress—or a more confrontational one—than he did in his first term.
Surprisingly, on some levels, his transition task may be harder than Mitt Romney’s would have been in building an administration from scratch.
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Romney would have enjoyed the honeymoon that is accorded to all newly elected presidents—even to George W. Bush after his highly contested, Supreme Court-abetted victory in 2000. But Obama’s 2-point popular-vote margin was so close, and his opponents so entrenched and impassioned, that the mood in Washington during the transition is likely to be more a function of relief that the long, costly, and bitter 2012 campaign is over than a reflection of a national coming together, like the honeymoon after his win in 2008. Republicans in Congress—their control of the House confirmed—show no signs yet that they are ready to work more closely with Obama on his legislative agenda or to smooth the path for his appointees.
Thanks to a 2010 law that encouraged challengers to start their transition work months before the election, Romney’s “Readiness Project” had been organizing since June, sifting through résumés, crafting an agenda, setting priorities, and studying policy options. With former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt in charge, Romney had in place what Republicans believed was the best transition operation ever assembled by a candidate.
More than a decade of academic studies of past transitions—some of which were haphazard, chaotic, or poorly organized—made Romney’s operation possible. But few people have researched how reelected presidents have readied their administrations for a second term, even though some of them clearly stumbled and fumbled away opportunities. Now, Obama confronts that job.
Since the summer, with much less public attention than Romney’s Readiness Project received, the president’s most senior aides in Washington have been meeting privately, talking with current officeholders, and looking ahead to second-term strategy and appointments. Leading the effort have been Chief of Staff Jacob Lew, Deputy Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, and Personnel Director Nancy D. Hogan. Consumed with the campaign, the president has not been very involved. But now, these aides are ready to report what they have learned. That includes feedback on which appointees, both on staff and in the Cabinet, want to stay. But the aides will also identify those whom they believe Obama should let go, regardless of whether they want to stay.
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Big changes are almost certain after a first term of remarkable Cabinet stability. Only two departments—Defense and Commerce—have seen changes at the top. The holdover department heads include some who are exhausted, some who are less adept politically than had been hoped, and some who have uneasy relations with Congress. “Even with Obama reelected, he has a big personnel challenge,” said James Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason University and an expert on transitions. “The biggest challenge in the beginning is always personnel.” Obama “just has so many vacancies to deal with,” Pfiffner said, noting that a president has about 1,000 appointments subject to Senate consent, another 800 noncareer Senior Executive Service positions, and about 1,400 Schedule C (political) appointments. “And, especially at the end of a first term, there are a lot of vacancies.”
No one—not even senior members of the White House staff—can know what direction the president will take until he turns his attention to the next term in the coming days. Longtime Republican and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card knows what it’s like. He participated in transitions in all possible ways: with Ronald Reagan succeeding vanquished Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980; with George H.W. Bush’s “friendly takeover” from fellow Republican Reagan in 1988; with Bush’s loss to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992; with George W. Bush’s succession after Clinton in 2000; and, finally, with Bush’s handover to Obama in 2008.
Recalling Bush’s reelection in 2004, Card said, “I met with the president at Camp David just a couple of days after the election, and he told me he wanted to make a lot of changes in the second term.” Bush understood that the best way to signal to the country that his second term would be different would be to personify his new approach with new appointees, Card told National Journal. “The personification makes a big difference in calling attention to the policy.” The best example of that was Bush’s decision to fire Donald Rumsfeld as Defense secretary after the 2006 elections.
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.