A Primer For Obama’s Transition Team

November 5, 2008

Steve Hess offers a guide for presidents-elect on what to do and what to avoid in the two and half months between Election Day and the inauguration in a Q&A discussion with John Maggs

Q: One of the lessons that I took away from this book and your other writings is that the transition into and beginning of a presidency is more of a management challenge than many presidents-elect realize. Why isn’t that better understood?

Hess: It’s not the nature of what candidates promise. They promise they will do something about Iraq, they will do something about the economy. These management questions don’t really interest most people. Actually, they don’t very much interest most presidential candidates. So they’re not very much discussed, and there aren’t necessarily very great commitments along these lines. So they get there and they find out that this a pretty big management problem. You’ve got 3 million civilians who work for you.

Q: Early in the book, you advise the president-elect to answer two questions: “Why did the voters choose you?” and “What promises did you make?” Why is this so important an exercise?

Hess: That is a way to sort out your priorities very quickly. And for example, if Bill Clinton had simply done this exercise, what are the most important things, one, two, three, four, five, he wouldn’t have started with gays in the military. That was a pledge he made, it was important, but it was a second-tier pledge. Obviously, as we all remember, that was a campaign about “it’s the economy, stupid.” But instead, he drifted off for one reason or another… and said in his memoirs he was totally unprepared for how emotional this issue was. So what happened was, this very smart man, long-term governor, ran things, gets going by hitting the ground stumbling.

Q: You start with the White House appointments.

Hess: I start with the White House for a very simple reason — you need the White House to fill the rest of government. And here, the example of how not to do it — he says it in his memoirs — is Bill Clinton, who was so fascinated by putting together — micromanaging, as he called it — the Cabinet, because he was the first president who made almost a commitment to have a Cabinet that “looked like America”… that with the exception of his chief of staff, he didn’t get to appoint his White House key advisers till six days before his inauguration. Obviously they had no learning time, but more important, the point is: The chief of staff, the general counsel, the personnel director, the congressional relations person, the press secretary, the speech writers, these people all need to be in place to move the process along…. So all of those people are really very important, and should be in place early, at least by Thanksgiving.

Q: You talk about different kinds of chiefs of staffs. What are the best ones?

Hess: There are heavy-handed chiefs of staff — H.R. “Bob” Haldeman under [Richard] Nixon, John Sununu the elder under George H.W. Bush. They make enemies awfully fast. They may do something for you, the president, for a while, but before you know it, you’ve got to think of a way of moving them aside. Others find that it’s helpful if they’ve had some congressional experience, either as a member themselves or as a staffer. They’ve got to know how the system works, and where the footfalls are, and where you’re going to fall into one of those holes, and it helps to have some experience in that way.

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