Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Do We Do Now?

77 days to get ready to govern. In normal circumstances, 11 weeks would seem enough to get started. These are hardly normal times. Still, Obama has already started, surely; if he is anything, he is an organizer, a planner.

This new book seems an interesting one:What Do We Do Now? by Stephen Hess (Brookings, 174 pages, $16.95).

Scholars generally consider Ronald Reagan's transition the gold standard, while Mr. Carter's and Bill Clinton's are case studies in how not to do it. Reagan proceeded magisterially, with staffing overseen by Ed Meese, policy planned by the Heritage Foundation and logistical support provided by Bill Brock, "the most creative Republican national chairman since Mark Hanna," in Mr. Hess's words.

Interesting that the Heritage Foundation planned policy; that makes it more than just a think tank. It makes more a quasi-governmental organizational, even an extension of government.

Mr. Carter was determined to be the opposite of Nixon, who had brought in Washington legend Bryce Harlow and other members of the Establishment to smooth his transition. So Mr. Carter turned to his "Georgia mafia." He made the disastrous decision to appoint as his congressional liaison Frank Moore, a man whose legislative lobbying had been limited to Atlanta.

Carter made it his business to alienate official Washington.

Bill Clinton admitted in his memoirs that he spent so much time "micromanaging the cabinet appointments" that he only got around to naming his White House staff six days before his Inauguration. The result was a chaotic first few months in which his big-ticket agenda was sidetracked by the debate over gays in the military.

Poor, if any, planning, seat-of-the-pants (or back-of-the-envelope) managing, and poor execution. A trifecta.

Mr. Hess warns against what he calls the Contrariness Principle. JFK summarily disbanded Ike's National Security Council only to find himself, three months later, without any functioning structure during the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Obama isn't going to repeat that sort of mistake; he has old Kennedy hands available, and has consulted them.

Mr. Carter got rid of the "Berlin Wall" that H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were supposed to have built around Nixon and ended up getting personally involved in decisions about who could play on the White House tennis court.

Obama seems to know how to delegate. And his game is basketball, anyway.

And Mr. Clinton, eager to demonstrate that the abrasive zero-tolerance administrative style of John Sununu was a thing of the past, installed his old buddy Mack McLarty, whose talents were considerable but (as he himself protested) did not include administrative organization.

In an ironic twist, Obama is tapping an old Clinton hand, Emmanuel, as his chief of staff.

Perhaps "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" banners should hang in every transition office – reminders that Michael Brown's qualification for being appointed head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2003 was having served as the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association.

How the hell did he ever get an appointment of any sort? Perhaps this example is illustrative: Paul O'Neill, the Treasury secretary from January 2001 to December 2002, told Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney that he disagreed with vital elements of their economic policies and added that he wouldn't be comfortable in a subordinate position after having been Alcoa's chief executive. They both laughed, and Mr. Bush said: "We know all that stuff. Doesn't matter. We want you to take the job." Mr. Hess writes: "What is so stunning about this mistake is how totally self-inflicted it was."

So why did O'Neill take it, anyway?

No comments:

Post a Comment