President Bill Clinton is the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term, just the second to try. Every presidential election is a time of transition–in the White House and on Capitol Hill. In the months following the election but before the president’s inauguration, first-time winners make the more dramatic headlines as they move from campaigning to governing due to high anticipations. But reelected incumbents too enter a transition period, reading the election results as a measure of their past performance and planning their governing strategy accordingly.
Elected presidents make the transition to governing in different ways. Those who win for the first time (thirteen such presidents since 1896) create a new administration. Those who are reelected (now seven such since 1896–FDR three times) have an opportunity to renew their administration. Vice presidents who take over an administration (five such since 1896) work with their predecessor’s plan. Of the five takeover presidents, four went on to win a full term, thus gaining an opportunity to create their own administration.
Exploring the passage from candidacy to presidency over the course of the century directs attention to wider changes in the political system. Three such changes are particularly noteworthy in the current transition: the shift in issues, altered congressional and presidential statuses, and the advent of the permanent campaign.
The Shift in Issues
We get the issues we earn. Failing to resolve major public problems over a period of time contributes to eras of government expansion, as in the 1930s and the 1960s. Such periods are typically followed by consolidative actions to make an expanded government work better, as in the 1950s and 1970s. In the most contemporary such cycle, the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson were followed by reorganizations and regulatory reforms in the Nixon and Carter administrations.
The seasoning of many New Deal and Great Society programs in the 1980s invited criticism of their effectiveness. President Reagan proposed contraction (or devolution); indeed, he all but forced it by cutting taxes and failing to reduce spending commensurately. We now have a debt-driven policy process that is inhospitable to large programmatic initiatives. Almost no legislation is now passed without “reform” in its title. The “merry” politics of giving has been replaced with the “nasty” politics of taking away, with neither political party anxious to take credit for reducing benefits.
Congress and the Presidency
Institutional change too is revealed in a review of presidential transitions over time. In fact, a system based on the separation of powers is constantly in motion. The post-World War II version features frequent split-party government–seven of the ten presidents have served with Congresses of the other party. Voters have added the separation of politics to the separation of powers. One consequence is the greater independence of Congress in agenda setting and policymaking.
We have even observed split-party Congresses (for example, the 100th, Reagan, and the 104th, Clinton) seize the initiative and same-party Congresses (the 96th, Carter, and the 103rd, Clinton) frustrate presidential designs. In the doing, partisanship in the House and Senate has intensified, thus raising the stakes and promoting new strategies for making law under split-party conditions. Less obvious, perhaps, but surely no less important is the changing role of the president. Traditionally thought to be the agenda-setter, he has had to settle for a more reactive role. The “good” president has been the so-called “active-positive” one, in James David Barber’s classification. The FDR model lives. And so tests are devised for measuring how any one president stacks up. Yet conditions have changed. Active presidents may build an administration to fulfill positive goals, only to live out their White House years managing debt, a condition that reportedly surprised President Clinton shortly after forming his first administration. “Active-negative” presidents, on the other hand, may find conditions promising for building an administration aimed at contracting and devolving government.
The Permanent Campaign
Denied the realization of an imperial presidency, presidents-elect may organize their administration so as to suit a revised and still transforming mission. With expectations high, status weakened, and job approval tested constantly, presidents may yield to a more public-oriented strategy for enhancing status. It is within the public arena that they are judged and, increasingly, where policy debate takes place. Hugh Heclo observes: “Not just presidents but everyone with an active interest in what happens in Washington now engages in continuous effort to orchestrate, amplify, and inject the presumptive voices of the American people . . . into the formulation and management of national policy. This is the permanent campaign.” Transitions for presidents as leaders of government are different from those of presidents as permanent campaigners.
The Traditional Transition to Governing
In a traditional transition, the president-elect moves beyond the campaign into governing. A theme for governing has usually emerged from the campaign. Pre-election planning is attentive to the tasks of governing, and the planning structure itself is a reminder that the campaign is a means to an end. After the election, the transition organization serves as an inventory of the new tasks. The president-in-waiting makes key appointments rapidly, usually beginning with the White House staff and moving on quickly to major cabinet posts. The press serves as a carrier, even enforcer, of expectations, notably willing to provide a “honeymoon” for an obliging new team.
The role of the president-elect varies according to the extent to which he has set a course for his presidency. If he is certain and unwavering about this purpose, he can be more withdrawn from the daily routine of organizing his government. Many newly elected presidents, including Nixon, Carter, and Clinton, tend to be overly involved in management. Presidents also vary in their public presence during the transition. Nixon and Reagan limited their appearances, and their statements were consistent with the dominant theme or declared purpose of their presidencies. Carter and Clinton, by contrast, played out their passage from candidate to president in public.
By the tests of the standard approach Nixon and Reagan had effective transitions. They played more or less by the book-not flawlessly, to be sure, but suited to the expectations of the Washington community. Carter’s transition was judged to be less effective in its planning and execution, due primarily to the president-elect’s outsider status and his determination to create his version of good government. Clinton’s transition was roundly judged to be “the worst.” It suited few of the standard recommendations. Those recommendations, however, may not be applicable in an era of permanent campaigning.
Campaigning to Govern
Is Bill Clinton formulating a new type of presidency, one suited to our times? He appeared ill-suited, uncomfortable, perhaps impatient, with the prevailing expectations for his presidency when he entered office. The first two years were clearly frustrating to this “active-positive” president seeking to make large change in a revised system. His most energetic effort at a campaigning approach to governing–the national health care proposal–failed miserably, though he traveled and stumped for it widely. During his first two years in office he visited 184 places, making 259 appearances, exclusive of foreign travel, vacations, trips to Camp David, and to Little Rock. Health care was the most frequent topic. The voting public’s verdict on his newly created administration was resoundingly negative in the 1994 midterm elections. It seems that the campaign style is not well designed for promoting and enacting large-scale programs in a period of massive debt.
The president soon learned, however, that his more public style is well suited to split-party government in which congressional Republicans take the initiative in regard to unpopular, contractive issues such as Medicare reform. And so a campaign-oriented president continued his travels. During his third and through July of his fourth year in office, the president visited 177 places, making 236 appearances, with the same exclusions. His message: The Republican Congress is going too far on the big issues and I will stop them.
Yet no president wants to campaign only saying “no.” Therefore, President Clinton developed a positive message in regard to lesser matters. He created a source of influence for the president in this new era of permanent campaigning. I call it “voice”–an impressive capacity to be with us as a presence through small issues–school uniforms, curfews, reading specialists, internet development, flex time, v-chips, 911 use, hospital stays–40 separate proposals in his acceptance speech in Chicago. As that speech went on, I expected him to announce a change in the school lunch menu of the Cleveland public schools–“got to get more fiber in those kids’ diets.”
This miniaturization of presidential power commands public attention and attracts a measure of acceptance, if not yielding what we ordinarily think of as prestige. Here is an activist president finding an outlet for his policy ambitions and a reason to visit with us regarding bite-sized problems we know well. The result is many sightings, if not exactly a vision.
And so the outline of a revised approach to presidential transitions may be emerging from the Clinton experience, one in which the standard moves toward governing and away from campaigning are less apt. Less attention is paid in the transition to taking charge than to adjusting to a different form of campaigning–aiming for policy support and higher approval ratings. Political consultants, the “hired guns,” don’t fade away in this revised transition. They have new challenges. Pollsters don’t return to old clients. Their data provide evidence for where and how the campaign is going, as well as which group is focusing on what. White House staff is as oriented to the outside for building pressure within than to the inside for generating a record to display without.
A Regenerated Presidency
I am less certain of what the transition to a second Clinton term ultimately will hold than to what a transition to a first term for Bob Dole would have entailed. My uncertainties regarding Clinton are these.
First, the Twenty-Second Amendment prohibits the president from running again. It is said that second-term presidents run for their place in history and therefore perhaps President Clinton will concentrate on governing from the White House more than from, say, California. Frankly, I doubt anyone knows how to run for history. Besides, as with President Reagan for George Bush in 1988, Clinton may view the 2000 election of Al Gore as a referendum on his record and campaign accordingly. But more than that, President Clinton is plainly more at ease in delivering his presidency to the people than permanently locating it in Washington. He has lamented that this was his last campaign. I observe that it is also his first since I detect no break point along the way.
Second, like all reelected presidents in the postþ World War II period, Bill Clinton faces a Congress of the other party. However, Republican presidents were content to ask for less, veto congressional initiatives, and turn to foreign and national security issues. Bill Clinton has unmet policy ambitions, an impressive register of potentially damaging ethical problems, less interest and expertise in foreign policy, and little experience in bipartisan governing. Further, the second midterm election is typically the worst for a two-term president–the so-called “six- year itch.” The president needs a strategy, beginning with this transition, to counter historical trends. Suffice it to say that presidents more popular than he is have had problems devising such a strategy. Further, as Norman Ornstein recently concluded, partisan acrimony, ideological distance, and bad relations between party leaders magnify the strategic challenge.
Third, the issues themselves introduce uncertainties. The continuing agenda includes items such as Medicare, Medicaid, changes in welfare reform, and balancing the budget that may be less susceptible to a campaigning style. Perhaps Republican majorities will relieve the president of responsibility for taking the initiative, but he does have proposals, and Republicans may be less anxious to be out front as foils in his “going public” strategy. The Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, said as much in his post-election statement. In the era of take-away rather than give-away, congressional Republicans will be anxious for the president to lead.
Fourth, we await the large number of appointments as key White House and cabinet officials announce their resignations. In his first term Clinton had the lowest turnover among cabinet secretaries (four) of any president since Eisenhower (three). But Eisenhower maintained continuity through the transition and into the next year. By contrast, Nixon exclaimed after his triumphant reelection in 1972 that: “We will tear up the pea patch,” as he asked for mass resignations. Reagan also made several changes but with many reappointments–shifting people to different jobs.
What is unusual, and therefore uncertain, with Clinton is having so many resignation announcements just after the election. Most unsettling for our place as a world leader are the departures in foreign and national security policy–virtually the entire team, with no immediate announcement of replacements. Adding to the uncertainty is the issue of diversity, that is, whether the president will once again allow that goal to appear to displace the substantive policy experience and ability of fine appointments in their own right.
A New Kind of Transition
Conceivably the “bridge to the 21st century” is from an inside governing style, with periodic campaigns, to an outside governing style, with a permanent campaign. If correct, then many of the working assumptions about the passage from campaigning to governing are inapt. And Bill Clinton’s transition in 1992 was not the “worst” but the “first” of a new form in which the president and his aides adjusted to a different setting for shaping and responding to public opinion. Much of that work will go on not in Washington, as traditionalists have grown to expect, but out there in the country, with visits from the president either in person or electronically. A strong case can be made for Bill Clinton having made this first transition–not in the standard post-election period, or in the first 100 days, or even the first two years–but during his first term, with an accelerated pace following the 1994 elections. The likelihood is that he will refine this approach to governing, not abandon it in favor of the more traditional style for which he is ill suited, with Vice President Al Gore at his side and prospective Republican candidates taking notes.