Did you know that the IBM Center for the Business
of Government hosts a "Presidential
Transition" blog; that the Council on Foreign Relations has its own "Transition
Blog: The New Administration"; and that the American University School
of Communication has a "Transition
Tracker" Web site? The National Journal offers its online readers
a comprehensive "Lost
in Transition" site to help them "navigate the presidential handover,"
including a "short
list," offering not only the president-elect's key recent appointments,
but also a series of not-so-short lists of those still believed to be in contention
for as-yet-unfilled jobs. Think of all this as Entertainment Weekly
married to People magazine for post-election political junkies.
Newsweek features "powering
up" ("blogging the transition"); the policy-wonk Web site Politico.com
offers Politico 44 ("a living
diary of the Obama presidency"); and Public Citizen has "Becoming
44," with the usual lists of appointees,
possible appointees, but – for the junkie who wants everything – "bundler transition
team members" and "lobbyist
and bundler appointees" as well. (For those who want to know, for instance,
White House Social Secretary-designate Desiree Roberts bundled
at least $200,000 for the Obama campaign.)
The New York Times has gone whole hog at "The
New Team" section of its Web site, where there are scads
of little bios of appointees, as well as prospective appointees – including
what each individual will "bring to the job," how each is "linked to Mr. Obama,"
and what negatives each carries as "baggage." Think of it as a scorecard for
transition junkies. The Washington Post, whose official beat is, of
course, Washington, D.C., über alles, has its "44:
The Obama Presidency, A Transition to Power," where, in case you're planning
to make a night of it on Jan. 20, you can keep up to date on that seasonal
must-subject, the upcoming inaugural balls. And not to be outdone, the transitioning
Obama transition crew has its own mega-transition site, Change.gov.
Earliest, Biggest, Fastest
And that, of course, only begins to scratch the
surface of the media's transition mania – I haven't even mentioned the cable
news networks – which has followed, with hardly a breath, nearly two years
of presidential campaign mania. Let's face it, whether or not the Obama transition
is the talk of Main Street and the underpopulated malls of this American moment,
it's certainly the talk of medialand – and at what can only be termed historic
levels, as befits a "historic" transition period.
Believe me, no one's sparing the adjectives right now. This transition is
the earliest, biggest, fastest, best organized, most efficient on record, even
as Obama himself has
"maintained one of the most public images of any president-elect." It's cause
for congratulations all around, a powerful antidote, we're told, to Bill Clinton's
notoriously chaotic transition back in 1992. In fact, we can't, it seems, get
enough of a transition that began to gather steam many months before Nov. 4
and has been plowing ahead for more than a post-election month now.
It's kind of exhausting, really, just thinking about that awesomely humongous
transition lineup. Check
out the list of transition review teams and advisers at Change.gov and
you'll find that it goes over the horizon. According
to the Washington Post, 135 transition team members, organized into
10 groups, all wearing yellow badges, backed by countless transition advisers,
"have swarmed into dozens of government offices, from the Pentagon to the National
Council on Disability" preparing the way for the new administration. This,
like so much else, has been "unprecedented."
And don't get anyone started on the veritable "army"
of volunteer lawyers giving "unprecedented scrutiny" to possible administration
appointees in a vetting process that began at the moment of Obama's nomination,
not election. As the Washington Post's Philip Rucker described it:
"Embarrassing e-mails, text messages, diary entries, and Facebook profiles?
Gifts worth more than $50? Relatives linked to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG,
or another company getting a federal bailout? Obama is conducting the vetting
much as he managed his campaign: methodically, thoroughly, and on a prodigious
That process includes a distinctly unprecedented invasion of privacy via a
seven-page, 63-question form that all potential appointees have had to fill
out. Imagine, for instance, that after 62 "penetrating" questions on every
aspect of your life, you faced this catchall
63rd question: "Please provide any other information, including information
about other members of your family, that could suggest a conflict of interest
or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the president-elect."
(For anyone worried about privacy issues, what this means practically – as
Barton Gellman explained in his book Angler on the vice-presidential
200-question vetting process by which Dick Cheney chose himself as candidate
and then used private information sent in by the other candidates for his own
purposes – is major dossiers on about 800 people.)
Everything in this "transition" is, in fact, more prodigious and more invasive
than in any previous transition, including, of course, the ongoing media fascination
with all those positions Obama is filling with "the
best and the brightest." We're not just talking about his vast economic
team or his national
security team, but the presidential liaison to Capitol Hill, the White
House press secretary, the president's
speechwriter, his communications director, and his White
House staff secretary, not to speak of the First
Lady's deputy chief of staff and, of course, that White House social secretary.
And then there's always that bout of "fantasy
football for foodies," the speculation over who will be the new White House
The Transition Bulks Up
Talk about confident and organized, Peter Baker
and Helene Cooper of the New York Times report
that Obama invited former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones to meet
with him and all but offered him a key national security post "a full 13 days
before the election." (He clearly felt that he had a pretty good idea of who
was going to be president-elect by then.) And the rest of his transition, so
efficiently organized by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta,
has been on a (steam)roll ever since. Post-Nov. 4, it has been rolling out
the key appointments at a historically "unprecedented" pace.
Five weeks past victory, according to the Times, Obama had announced
13 of the 24 "most important positions in a new administration," including
Jones as his national security adviser. At the equivalent moment in their transitions,
Jimmy Carter had filled two of these positions; Ronald Reagan, two; George
H.W. Bush, eight (but his was largely a carry-over administration); Bill Clinton,
one; and George W. Bush (distracted by an electoral battle wending its fateful
way to the Supreme Court), one.
Bated breath hardly catches the media mood, facing the thrilling almost daily
roll-outs of new appointments and record numbers of president-elect press conferences
against a backdrop of enough American flags to outfit a parade and announced
from a White-House press-room-style podium carefully – not to say ornately
– labeled "The
Office of the President Elect." At such moments, the Obama transition can
seem anything but transitional.
Given the overwhelming, largely congratulatory focus on specific appointments
and their attendant drama – Will the strong personalities of Hillary, Bob,
and Jim clash? Are the Obama-ites in a desperate scramble for a new CIA director?
Is Larry Summers next in line for the Fed? – the larger architecture of this
moment, and what it portends for the presidency to come, is ignored.
Think of it this way: After the Imperial Campaign – that two-year
extravaganza of bread and circuses (and money) – comes the Imperial Transition.
Everything in these last weeks, like the preceding two years, has been bulked
up, like Schwarzenegger's Conanesque pecs. In other words, since Nov. 5, what
we've been experiencing in the midst of one of the true
crisis periods in our history has essentially been an unending celebration
of super-sized government. Consider it an introduction to what will surely
be the next Imperial Presidency.
As the transition events indicate, whatever its specific policies of change,
the administration-to-come is preparing to move, and in force, into an empty
executive branch as it already exists. Wherever there's an opening, that is,
Podesta's guys are rushing to fill it.
The particular transition moment that caught my eye occurred two weeks ago
when the chief strategist of the Obama election campaign, David Axelrod, was
adviser to the president. To be more specific, he was given Karl Rove's
old slot (and, assumedly, office) in the White House. As the Boston Globe's
Peter Canelos wrote:
"[I]t's now obvious that there's one part of George W. Bush's political
legacy that Obama and Axelrod aren't eager to change: the very dubious notion
of having the president's campaign strategist rubbing elbows with all the
policy wonks in the West Wing."
True, presidents have often wanted trusted advisers near at hand, but the
institutionalization of that urge in an actual office in the White House is
a new development that Obama could easily, as well as painlessly, have reversed
(and many would have cheered him for it). So consider it a signal.
Barack Obama – thank goodness – isn't George Bush. He doesn't arrive in office
with a crew wedded to a "unitary
executive theory" of the presidency, or an urge to loose the executive
from the supposed "chains" of the Watergate-era Congress, or to "take off the
gloves" globally. He doesn't have strange, twisted, oppressive ideas about
how the Constitution should work, nor assumedly do visions of a "commander-in-chief
presidency" (or vice presidency) dance in his head like so many sugar plums.
But don't ignore the architecture, the deep structure of the American political
system. Make no mistake, Obama is moving full-speed ahead into an executive
mansion rebuilt and endlessly expanded by the national security state over
the last half-century-plus, and then built up in major ways by George W.'s
"team." Despite the prospect of a new dog and a mother-in-law
in the White House, the president-elect and his transition team show no signs
of wanting to change the basic furniture, no less close up a few wings of the
imperial mansion (other, perhaps, than the elaborate prison complex at Guantanamo).
With so many catastrophes impending and so many pundits and journalists merrily
applauding the most efficient transition in American history, no one, it seems,
is even thinking about the architecture.
The GM of Governments
The New York Times' David Sanger recently
reported on what happened when Obama's mini-transition teams of ex-Clintonistas
ventured into the heart of our post-9/11 imperial bureaucracy. Many of the
team members had worked in the very same departments in the 1990s. On returning,
however, they found themselves to be so many Alices in a labyrinthine new Wonderland
of national security. Sanger writes:
"[S]everal say they feel more like political archaeologists. 'The buildings
look the same,' one said over coffee, 'but everything inside is unrecognizable.'
And as they dig, they have tripped across a few surprises. … [F]ew can contain
their amazement, chiefly at the sheer increase in the size of the defense and
"'For a bunch of small-government Republicans,' [said] one former denizen
of the White House who has now stepped back inside for the first time in
eight years, 'these guys built a hell of an empire.' Eight years ago, there
were two deputy national security advisers; today there are a half-dozen,
each with staff."
And don't think for a second that most or all of those half-dozen posts aren't
likely to be filled by the new administration, or that, four or eight years
later, we'll be back to two deputy national security advisers; nor should you
imagine that the Homeland Security Department that Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano
is to run, a vast, lumpy, inefficient, ineffective post-9/11 creation of the
Bush administration (which now has its own embedded mini-homeland-industrial
complex), will be gone in those same years, anymore than that most un-American
of words "homeland" is likely to leave our lexicon; nor will Barack Obama not
appoint a director of national intelligence, another of those post-9/11 creations
that added yet one more layer of bureaucracy to the 18 departments, agencies,
and offices which make up the official U.S.
Don't hold your breath for that labyrinthine mess to be reduced to a more
logical two or three intelligence agencies; nor will that 2002 creation of
the Bush administration, the U.S. Northern
Command, another militarization of "the homeland" now in the process of
up, be significantly downsized or abolished in the coming years.
On all of this, the Bush administration has gone
out of its way to lend a hand to Obama's transition team and, in the process,
help institutionalize the imperial transition itself. Like the new money arrangements
pioneered in the 2008 elections, it surely will remain part of the political
landscape for the foreseeable future. From such developments in our world,
it seems, there's never any turning back.
There's nothing strange about all this, of course, if you're already inside
this system. It seems, in fact, too obvious to mention. After all, what president
wouldn't move into the political/governmental house he's inheriting as efficiently
and fully as possible?
The unprecedented size of this imperial pre-presidency, however, signals something
else: that what is to come – quite aside from the specific policies adopted
by a future Obama administration – will be yet another imperial presidency.
(And, by the way, those who expect Congress to suddenly become the player it
hasn't been, wielding power long ceded, are as likely to be disappointed as
those who expect a Hillary Clinton State Department renaissance under the budgetary
shadow of the Pentagon.)
On Jan. 20, Barack Obama will be more prepared than any president in recent
history to move in and, as everyone now likes to write, "hit the ground running."
But that ground – the bloated executive and the vast national security apparatus
that goes with it (as well as the U.S. military garrisons that dot the planet),
all further engorged by George W., Dick, and pals – is anything but fertile
when it comes to "change."
Maybe if the imperial presidency and the national security state worked, none
of this would matter. But how can they, given the superlatives that apply to
them? They're oversized, over-muscled, overweight, overly expensive, overly
powerful, and overly intrusive.
Bottom line: they are problem creators, not problem solvers. To expect one
genuine "decider," moving in at the top, to put them on a diet-and-exercise
regimen is asking a lot. After all, at the end of the George Bush era, what
we have is the GM of governments, and when things start to go wrong, who's
going to bail it out?
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt