Just like the Obama team today, Card had quietly used the 2004 campaign season to get a handle on the wishes of Bush’s Cabinet and senior team. But it was not so much to find out what they wanted, he said, as to inform them that the president might want them to go. “It was really to give the president all the flexibility, so I asked them, ‘What are your plans?’ But it was not meant necessarily for reassurance. It was meant to soften the blow if a change comes.”
Card recalls some “awkward” and uncomfortable conversations. “These are frequently hard, because changes are not necessarily a criticism of the person who is leaving. It is more the need to demonstrate to the American people that things are different. It is not good versus bad. It is old versus new.” He said his toughest call was to tell Colin Powell that Bush wanted Condoleezza Rice as his new secretary of State. “I had to make the phone call saying, ‘Thank you very much,’ and I think he wanted me to say, ‘Welcome back,’ instead.”
Card said that Obama’s team almost certainly will be making some of these calls. “I don’t think there’s ever been a president that moved from one term to a second term who said the status quo is great. Almost every election is about change. But it doesn’t always mean it is about dramatic change. Part of it is, you want a kind of reinvigoration; you want new energy.”
Clay Johnson, who headed Bush’s transition team in 2000, has some regrets about how the president handled the move into his second term in 2004. “It is a great opportunity to reset an administration, to reenergize, to re-prioritize,” Johnson told NJ. “Looking back, we probably didn’t take full advantage of that opportunity.” Offering advice to Obama, he said, “You can tackle new issue priorities. You can move some people around. You freshen everybody’s batteries. It is an opportunity for President Obama to reset and not just keep on keeping on with the same bunch of folks doing the same old thing.”
Johnson also underscored the opportunity for what he called “message-sending.” Lew will most likely press Obama to identify the areas where he wants change. “What do we want to do differently tone-wise, cooperation-wise, communication-wise?” Johnson said. “Where you want to make the greatest amount of change might be where you want the greatest change in personnel.”
That brings us, of course, to policy or priority changes in a second term, certain to be just as crucial to the president’s success over the next four years as his personnel choices. And, with the lame-duck session of Congress looming, Obama has little time to work out a new approach before tackling sequestration, the fiscal cliff, and the Bush tax cuts. In planning for that, Lew and Rouse have been joined by Domestic Policy Chairwoman Cecilia Muñoz and Legislative Affairs Director Rob Nabors over recent weeks. That group has also discussed second-term legislative priorities and the groundwork for the president’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal. But a key element of those plans did not come into focus until this week when the White House knew the partisan makeup of the Congress that will receive Obama’s budget and agenda.
“Dealing with the urgent financial matters that are on his plate—that’s the first thing he and the Congress have to do,” said Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University, who has studied presidential transitions. “How he deals with it will depend in large measure on who is there in Congress.” Now, the president knows that the election essentially maintained the status quo on Capitol Hill, and that will factor in to his personnel decisions, arguing, for example, for keeping Lew in his post because he works well with the GOP leaders in the House.
On policy and personnel alike, everybody is looking to Obama to move beyond his election-night remarks in Chicago and signal what kind of second-term relationship he wants with Congress. Clarity from the top could be the most important element, argues Terry Sullivan, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina and an expert on presidential transitions. “You have to be clear-eyed about what you are going to pursue in a second term, and sometimes that takes some fresh faces,” he said, adding a warning that every president in his second term begins to think of his historical legacy, a mind-set that leads to overreach, as when President George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security.
An overreach of a different kind marked what all the experts consider the worst presidential transition from a first to a second term. Richard Nixon, fresh from his landslide victory in 1972, shocked his Cabinet officers and top aides by demanding that they all submit resignations. “It was demoralizing,” Sullivan said. “Disastrous,” agreed Kumar. With his experience in multiple administrations, Card offered a more nuanced judgment that he said best captures Obama’s challenge today: “Demands are bad for morale,” he said. “Expectations may not be. I don’t think anybody who is serving should be overly confident about the status quo.”
If Obama rises to the challenge, he could set the stage for action that could prove to be as dramatic as anything a President-elect Romney might have pursued.
This article appeared in print as "Out With the Old."
This article appears in the Nov. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.