Transition to presidency can be challenging

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

WASHINGTON -- No time to celebrate.

On Nov. 5, either Barack Obama or John McCain will pivot from campaigning and begin a dash to Inauguration Day. The election winner will have 77 days to put together a government, set priorities and rework a federal budget flooded with red ink while under the pressure of two wars and the financial crisis.

This will be the first wartime presidential transition in 40 years and the first after Sept. 11. Government planners worry about a window of vulnerability at the start of a new presidency when thousands of administration jobs have not been filled and a newly elected Congress is settling in.

"Don't worry about jinxing the campaign or being too presumptuous," said 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."

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.

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.

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.

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