Subway tickets in Washington,DC,used to boast a cuddly picture of the pandas in the zoo. Now they have a smiling picture of Barack Obama instead. With the inauguration only days away,there is no escaping the festive mood. Babies are wearing Time for a change outfits. Tat merchants are selling ghastly Barack Obama plates and repulsive handbags honouring his wife. The president-elect himself has issued posters exhorting his fans to Be the change. But behind all the schlock-peddling and platitude-spouting,the transition has been going rather well.
That is not,of course,a reliable guide to the future. This time eight years ago people were gushing about how efficient and businesslike the incoming Bush administration was. After all the dithering and lying and dodgy ethics and comely interns of the Clinton years,Americans found the new president’s decisiveness,punctuality,uncomplicated marriage and early bedtimes refreshing. Before he was sworn in,Mr Bush’s approval rating was nearly as high as Mr Obama’s is now. It has slipped a bit since then.
Still,Mr Obama has named his team quickly. Nearly all the top people-cabinet secretaries and senior White House aides-are now chosen,and Senate confirmation hearings are well under way. Mr Bush was also quick to pick his top people,but slower to make his second-tier appointments,notes Linda Fowler,a political scientist at Dartmouth College. His health secretary,for example,was confirmed quickly but had no deputy to carry out his orders.
Mr Bush struggled in part because he feared,with some justification,that the permanent bureaucracy in Washington would be hostile to a Republican agenda. He searched long and hard for loyal Republicans for nearly every post,sometimes sacrificing talent in the process. Mr Obama does not have this problem. Nearly everyone in Washington voted for him. So he worries less about loyalty and more about ability. He did not pick Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state because of her lifelong devotion to the Obama cause.
On paper,the new administration looks formidable. Tim Geithner,the incoming treasury secretary,helped the Bush administrations efforts to bail out the financial sector,so he will not have to cram for his new job. He stumbled this week,however: it emerged that he failed to pay $34,000 in taxes between 2001 and 2004. But this may have been an innocent mistake,and senators are keen to have someone competent handling the financial crisis,so he will probably get away with it.
Meanwhile,Mr Obama is lobbying Congress to release the second half of a $700 billion package (the Troubled Assets Relief Programme) aimed at shoring up the financial sector. One of his top economic advisers,Larry Summers,sent a letter to congressional leaders agreeing that the plan so far had been insufficiently transparent,too soft on bankers and not helpful enough to homeowners facing foreclosure. He promised to correct this. Because of the way the package is structured,Congress can deny Mr Obama the funds,but Mr Obama can veto their
denial. He would rather get the money without an unseemly quarrel with his own party,however.
Mr Obama’s choice of Mrs Clinton to head the State Department suggests either that he wants to delegate the day-to-day handling of foreign affairs to a star,or that he wants someone to blame if something goes horribly wrong. Both could be true. Mrs Clinton has never run a big organisation (the State Department has 57,000 employees) and she made a hash of running a medium-sized one (her presidential campaign). But she works hard,masters her briefing books and has few serious policy differences with Mr Obama. Despite the gazillions her husband has raised for his foundation from iffy foreigners,she looked set to breeze through her confirmation hearings this week.
Mr Obama’s decision to keep George Bush’s defence secretary,Robert Gates,was as bold as it was sensible. The anti-war left are appalled. But Mr Obama knows his time will be gobbled up by the financial crisis. He needs someone who requires no preparation to handle two wars and an army under terrible strain. Mr Gates will oversee a steady withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a surge into Afghanistan. Some day,budget permitting,he will expand America’s armed forces. Mr Obama thinks he can trust Mr Gates because he is a professional,not a politician. Asked in 2006 whether America was winning in Iraq,he replied: No,sir.” That things look better now is partly thanks to him.
Despite the financial crisis,Mr Obama is determined to extend health insurance to nearly everyone. His health tsar,Tom Daschle,is steeped in the subject. In a recent book,he advocated much more government involvement in health care. He understands how politically hard this will be. As a senator,he had a ringside seat when the Clintons’ overweening health-care project was knocked down in the 1990s. But as the top Democrat in the Senate between 1994 and 2004,he has clout on Capitol Hill. He is surrounded by able wonks,and he has Mr Obama’s ear. Public opinion is in his favour,at least for now. But every nook of America’s insanely complex health-care system has entrenched defenders,and every previous attempt to provide universal health care has failed.
So far,only minor hiccups have afflicted the transition. The biggest concerned Bill Richardson,Mr Obama’s choice for commerce secretary. Mr Richardson,who is governor of New Mexico,had to withdraw his nomination after it became apparent that a probe into his administration’s alleged influence-peddling was serious. Mr Obama looked clueless for not having vetted Mr Richardson properly,but the story was quickly forgotten,much like Mr Richardson’s run for president last year.
Controversy dogs Mr Obama’s choice for attorney-general,too. Eric Holder has been chided for his role in Bill Clinton’s pardon of a dodgy financier and grant of clemency for some Puerto Rican terrorists. But most senators think he would be an improvement on Alberto Gonzales. The governor of Illinois’s alleged attempt to sell Mr Obama’s old Senate seat has also proved embarrassing,but reasonable people can hardly blame Mr Obama for that.
Some of the new cabinet are attracting flak for their beliefs. Lawmakers from coal-mining states shudder at the view of Steven Chu,the incoming energy secretary,that carbon-belching coal is his worst nightmare. Carol Browner,the new climate tsar,delights greens but worries those who would rather environmental regulations did not cost too much. The Washington Times,a conservative paper,plays up her ties to the Socialist International,which sounds scary but is a respectable umbrella group that includes Britain’s Labour Party.
The rest of the team raises few hackles. Janet Napolitano,the governor of Arizona,is a solid choice for secretary of homeland security. As the chief executive of a state with a long and porous border with Mexico,she has a feel for well-policed frontiers. And Arne Duncan,a cautious school reformer from Chicago,makes an uncontroversial pick for education secretary.
Mr Obama’s team includes an unusually high number of ex-senators: Mrs Clinton,Mr Daschle,Ken Salazar,the interior secretary,Vice-President Joe Biden and,of course,the president himself. It is well-supplied with brainpower: Mr Chu has a Nobel prize for physics,and Mr Summers was president of Harvard. And it has several tall people who share Mr Obama’s love of basketball.
It includes few southerners or Republicans,however. The only Republican of note is the transport secretary,Ray LaHood.
One thing to thank Mr Bush for The outgoing president has done an admirable job of smoothing the transition. Mr Bush’s staff have done all they can to brief and assist the new people,for example by quickly giving 1,000 members of the Obama team clearance to look at sensitive information. Mindful that terrorists like to strike when their enemies are unprepared,incoming and outgoing aides and cabinet members met at the White House this week to rehearse their response to a hypothetical terrorist attack. The Bushites’ co-operativeness contrasts with the childish behaviour of some Clintonites in 2001,who vandalised White House offices as they packed up to leave.
The challenges Mr Obama faces are too large to tackle without Republican support. So far,he has made a good show of bipartisanship,both in small ways (dining this week with conservative columnists) and in larger ones (putting big tax cuts in his stimulus proposals). He has shown flexibility in dealing with Congress,too. For example,when lawmakers pointed out that a plan to offer handouts to firms that create jobs was open to abuse-sly firms could sack 100 people,hire ten and claim a handout for creating jobs-Mr Obama ditched the idea.
Because any president’s ability to push laws through Congress depends in large measure on his personal popularity,Mr Obama is in a strong position. He is much more popular than Congress or his own party. And he has three strategies for staying that way. First,obviously,to govern well. Second,to use his eloquence to persuade Americans that what he is doing is right. And third,to keep courting and raising money from the online network of supporters who helped him get elected.
Permanent campaigns do not always work,however. The activists who loved Mr Obama when he promised vaguely-defined change may love him less when he has to make hard choices. And the power of the bully pulpit is often overestimated. Mr Obama will be judged by his results,just as Mr Bush has been.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008