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The Next New Deal

Omaha, Nebraska.  

It starts, in other words, with the transition—the first test of Obama’s mettle.

On the day of the third presidential debate, while Obama was in New York preparing for his tangle with McCain, a conference was taking place in Washington at the Center for American Progress (CAP) with the title “Presidential Transitions: From Campaigning to Governing.” The attendees heard presentations from academics, former White House staffers, and Bush-Cheney transition director Clay Johnson III. They heard stories about good transitions and bad, about the dizzying 77-day stretch in which the president-elect and his people must assemble a Cabinet and White House staff, develop legislative and political agendas, field a gazillion white papers, and fend off (or lap up) the kind of toadying rarely seen this side of a monarchy. Which is to say it was a typical Beltway gabfest, except for one salient fact: Offstage and out of sight, the good people of CAP were quietly planning the actual transition for the putative Obama administration.

Leading that effort is John Podesta, CAP’s president and chief executive, whom Obama tapped in the last few months to head up his transition. That Podesta should find himself in this position is ironic, even mildly odd. A former White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton, he was a loyal supporter of his wife during the Democratic primaries; much of the work he is doing now he expected to be doing for her. Around him are a bevy of Clinton alums, now toiling on Obama’s behalf: Leon Panetta, Bob Rubin, Gene Sperling, Carol Browner. Odder still, the transition that Podesta is designing is explicitly modeled not on Clinton’s but on Ronald Reagan’s. Indeed, Clinton’s transition is said by some involved to be a kind of anti-model for the Obama endeavor.

Then again, on second thought, maybe it’s not so odd—the Clinton transition was famously, fantastically dysfunctional. His pledge to pick a Cabinet that “looks like America” yielded a process riven by identity politics, ravaged by interest-group pressure. Thoughts of reaching across the aisle—Condi Rice was considered for the position of U.N. ambassador—were quickly abandoned. The whole thing was haphazard, disorganized, painfully slow, and politically maladroit. (Zoë Baird, anyone?) There was no real plan for what to do on taking office, just a memo outlining the first two weeks, and even that was ignored. Gays in the military took center stage, along with the signing of a handful of executive orders related to abortion. “There was an overall appearance of chaos,” recalls an early Clinton official. “All of us on the team were at times witting, at times unwitting co-conspirators in the undoing of his centrist, New Democrat credentials.”

It should come as no surprise that No Drama Obama wants his transition to be nothing like that of Chaotic Clinton’s. Already his pre-transition is exhibiting the kind of order and discipline (and lack of leaks) that have been the hallmarks of his campaign. With the help of some 50 old Washington hands, Podesta and his people are drafting a book-length transition blueprint, with agency-by-agency policy agendas, including day-one, day-100, and year-one objectives, too. Résumés are already being collected. Daily conference calls and meetings occur. Of Obama’s pre-transition planning—and, in fact, of McCain’s as well—Clay Johnson has said, “The amount of work being done before the election, formal and informal, is the most ever.”

Obama advisers make no bones about why they see all this as essential: Given the unusually crisis-plagued environment into which Obama will be stepping, he will want to move quickly, especially when it comes to selecting his Cabinet. Almost certain to come first, perhaps within days, will be his economic and national-security teams. And with those choices, they say, he will want to send a message of centrism and bi-partisanship. It’s conceivable that Obama will ask Bob Gates to stay on as Defense secretary; Chuck Hagel, too, might find a place high in the administration. But although there has been chatter that Obama might also retain Hank Paulson at the Treasury, the inside betting is on a Larry Summers encore. “They’re gonna want somebody who knows the building, knows the economy, has been confirmed before and been advising them on economics,” says the former Clinton aide. “I’d be flabbergasted if they chose somebody else.”

Once the Cabinet is in place, Obama will turn to congressional relations, and here too the contrast with Clinton is likely to be pronounced. From the get-go, WJC and the Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate were at loggerheads. The old bulls regarded him as an outsider, an interloper, a president elected with just 43 percent of the vote—as someone to be pushed around. They informed him in no uncertain terms that they wouldn’t help him pass his promised package of political reforms. They pressured him (along with his wife) to put health-care reform ahead of welfare reform, a fateful blunder.