Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Obama transition hits historical home run

Almost before the echoes of Barack Obama's Grant Park victory speech had died away pundits and the blogosphere began to keep score about the effectiveness of his transition. In a way, a presidential transition is like a political spring training that gives the incoming manager and his team a chance to prepare and set the tone for what amounts to a four-year long regular season. Every transition presents opportunities for an incoming administration to put together a game plan to deliver hardball policy ideas to give the new team an early lead in the beginning of the regular season. One danger the new team faces during the transitional preseason is being suckered by the other side into playing for keeps before opening day. With President Elect Obama’s Cabinet and White House policy team now in place, and the maneuvering over various economic bailout options mostly behind us, it’s time for some preseason analysis of the management decisions the Obama team has made.

This upcoming season is a particularly important one to get ready for because the new president is taking office during a political realignment. Realignments are rare events in U.S. politics, occurring only about once every four decades; the 2008 realignment is only the sixth in American electoral history. During and after a realignment, the old political truths–and the standards for judging presidential transitions–that appeared axiomatic during the preceding era no longer apply and the President-elect has to manage the process with an acute sensitivity to what the times demand.

As we indicated in our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, You Tube and the Future of American Politics, all political realignments are produced by the coming of age of a large, dynamic generation and the emergence of a new communication technology that effectively mobilizes the rising generation. All realignments give American politics an extreme makeover. However, because they are caused by different types of generations, either "idealist" or "civic," not all realignments are the same. Consequently, the standards for judging the success or failure of a presidential transition vary from one type of realignment to another.

Idealist generations, like the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), whose coming-of-age produced a realignment centered on Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign of 1968, try to impose their own personal morality on the country through the political process. Political debate in eras dominated by idealist generations often tends to focus on social or moral issues, not economic or foreign policy concerns. Because idealist generations are highly divided, ideological, and uncompromising, during these types of realignments, the most successful transitions are those that advance the ideological goals of the new President and his winning team.

The current realignment however, is a "civic" realignment, produced by the political emergence of America's newest civic generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003). Civic generations react against the efforts of divided idealist generations to advance their own moral causes. They expect their team to unify the country, focus on reenergizing political and governmental institutions and using those institutions to confront and solve pressing national issues left unattended and unresolved during the previous idealist era. The transition efforts of President-elect Obama should be measured against this set of expectations, not those of an idealist era like the one just ended.

Honest Abe's and FDR's Transition Lessons for Barack Obama

Previous civic realignments occurred in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln and in 1932, when the Millennials' civic generation great grandparents, the GI Generation, put Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. It's no coincidence that these civic presidents, along with George Washington, top all lists of our greatest presidents. All three led the United States in resolving deep crises by inspiring and guiding new civic generations and creating, revitalizing, and expanding the country's civic institutions. It is this high historical standard that will set the bar for history’s evaluation of Obama’s presidency, making his preparation for the new season all the more challenging.

An incoming president during a civic realignment must avoid exacerbating the national crisis that he will soon inherit but also avoid being tied to the failed policies of the outgoing administration. So far, President-elect Obama has been able to maneuver through this political thicket as deftly as Lincoln and FDR did after their own realigning elections.

Southern states began seceding from the Union within days of Lincoln's election. Lincoln attempted to reassure the South that he would do nothing to tamper with slavery in states where it already existed, but he could not keep secessionist states in the Union without acceding to their demands to permit slavery in new territories. That would have required him to reject his own principles and those of his Republican Party, something he was unable and unwilling to do.

The outgoing Democratic President, James Buchanan, argued that secession was unconstitutional, but also that he had no power to prevent it. Consequently, he did virtually nothing when the seceding states took control of federal institutions throughout the South and blockaded Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Lincoln waited until South Carolina actually fired on Fort Sumter before he announced his intention to use military force to relieve the federal garrison there. Not being precipitous or overly anxious made it easier for Lincoln to prepare for, rally, and lead the country in the war that followed.

The transition between the administrations of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt was far more strained. In contrast to Buchanan, Hoover made a number of post-election attempts to persuade or, in the view of pro-FDR historians, entrap Roosevelt into endorsing Hoover's monetary and fiscal policies. Hoover presented to FDR an offer to share power in the public interest, but what he really wanted Roosevelt to do was commit to killing the New Deal before it even started. In letters to conservative Republican senators Hoover said that if the president-elect agreed to what Hoover wanted "he will have ratified the whole major program of the Republican administration; that is it means the abandonment of 90 percent of the so-called new deal." More specifically, Hoover wanted his successor to renounce, among other things, aid to homeowners unable to pay their mortgages, public works projects, and plans for the Tennessee Valley Authority. FDR studiously avoided making any policy commitments or even responding to the outgoing president's efforts to contact him, going so far as to claim that a secretary had misplaced a letter to him from Hoover. FDR's ability to preserve his political independence and policy flexibility made the historically high-scoring first hundred days of his presidency possible.

Obama is a good student of history


Both the Bush administration and the Obama team seem to be well aware of the rocky Hoover-Roosevelt transition during which an already bad economy worsened. Both Obama and Bush wanted to avoid open conflict and strained to be, or at least appear, cooperative on issues such as the auto company bailout and the use of TARP funds to stabilize the nation’s financial system. This approach fits the promise of Barack Obama to avoid excessive partisan confrontation. It fits the desire of the Bush administration to shape a historical record as positive as possible.

It is also clear, however, that Obama is attempting to follow in FDR’s footsteps by seeking to avoid collaborative policy making or commitments to continue any Bush administration policies. For example, Obama’s economic team has resisted overtures from the Bush administration to coordinate more fully on a financial sector rescue package or endorse the release of the second tranche of TARP funds. Instead the Obama team has kept its focus on the next political season by pushing Congress to quickly pass an Obama-designed stimulus program even before January 20, 2009.

From the beginning of the transition, Obama and his team have repeated the mantra that the United States has "only one president at a time,” a nice way to say, “wait until spring training is over and the regular season starts before we start playing for real." Based upon the professionalism and historical sensitivity he has demonstrated during the transition, his team should be not only a pennant contender, but also one capable of winning the World Series of a civic realignment.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.