Now Obama Has to Govern
There may be more difficulties than he realizes in closing Gitmo.
Presidential transitions can be problematic. The candidate is utterly exhausted. Supporters have unattainable expectations and unrealistic personal hopes. The ease of making campaign pledges has given way to the obstinate process of legislating them. And Barack Obama is the first president-elect since Richard Nixon without executive experience. What are some of his transition challenges so far?
One of Mr. Obama’s first decisions was to make Rahm Emanuel his chief of staff. This smart, aggressive Chicago pol may turn out to be a wise pick. But first he must decide what his role is. Will he be the opinionated enforcer who ran the Clinton White House political office? Or will Mr. Emanuel fashion himself into a more traditional chief of staff?
The phrase former chiefs, Republican and Democrat, seem to prize is “honest broker.” President Ronald Reagan’s chief, James A. Baker III, once cautioned, “Don’t use the process to impose your policy views.” Effective chiefs of staff don’t short circuit the decision-making process. Instead, they strive to impartially present the views of others and become a trusted channel of communication to the president for leaders on both sides of the aisle.
About Karl Rove
Karl Rove served as Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush from 2000–2007 and Deputy Chief of Staff from 2004–2007. At the White House he oversaw the Offices of Strategic Initiatives, Political Affairs, Public Liaison, and Intergovernmental Affairs and was Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, coordinating the White House policy making process.
Before Karl became known as “The Architect” of President Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, he was president of Karl Rove + Company, an Austin-based public affairs firm that worked for Republican candidates, nonpartisan causes, and nonprofit groups. His clients included over 75 Republican U.S. Senate, Congressional and gubernatorial candidates in 24 states, as well as the Moderate Party of Sweden.
Karl writes a weekly op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, is a Newsweek columnist and is now writing a book to be published by Simon & Schuster. Email the author at Karl@Rove.com or visit him on the web at Rove.com.
Being an impartial manager who constructively encourages individuals to marshal data, strengthen arguments and shape options is hard for anyone. It will be particularly hard for a combative advocate like Mr. Emanuel. His success may depend on his ability to submerge lifetime habits and offer his opinion sparingly.
Another early decision was to leak that Sen. Hillary Clinton was being vetted for secretary of state. The examination better find her acceptable. Any other selection now would embitter her supporters, even if she publicly declines the appointment.
There are also plans to use the Obama campaign’s email list to lobby for Mr. Obama’s policies. The Chicago Tribune, reporting comments from Obama spokesman Steve Hildebrand, summed up the plan this way: the email list could be used “to challenge Democratic lawmakers if they don’t hew to the Obama agenda.”
Just one problem. It’s illegal. There are statutory prohibitions on the White House from using tax dollars to directly lobby Congress by unleashing emails, calls and visits. That’s up to outside groups to do.
Even giving the list to outside groups raises problems. Such strong-arming irritates allies, infuriates fence sitters, and enrages opponents in Congress. Lawmakers dislike grass-roots lobbying by those representing people in their states or districts. They’ll be livid if the White House facilitates it. Gregory Craig, slated to be White House counsel, will likely put the brakes on use of the campaign’s email addresses.
One challenge the president-elect faces is setting a starting agenda that’s too ambitious. Even a popular new president has finite political capital and time. The congressional pipeline moves more slowly than any White House wishes, especially a new administration.
Mr. Obama has pledged quick action on tax cuts (and increases), education, energy and the environment. There have been few details on some of these issues and too little groundwork to fast track them on the Hill. Expectations are too high.
If he makes closing Guantanamo an early priority, Mr. Obama could needlessly be embroiled in tough questions. Where in America should he put suspected terrorists? What should be done with released suspects whose home country doesn’t want them back? Mr. Obama could spend his first 100 days explaining why enemy combatants picked up on battlefields abroad should be released here.
The president-elect says his first priority will be a stimulus package. He may get one, but it will consist of tired ideas offered by congressional Democrats: extending unemployment insurance, giving money to states and cities, and increasing spending on infrastructure.
This isn’t likely to be much of an early win. The package isn’t likely to stimulate the economy — for example, only one of every four federal highway dollars is spent in the year it’s appropriated. And Americans were not prepared in the campaign for the stimulus price tags now being bandied about. So if Democrats pass it, and particularly if they add an auto bailout, there could be a public backlash.
One problem the president-elect has to worry about is whether his transition is stockpiling problems. Encouraging this year’s lame-duck Congress to decide the Colombia trade agreement would remove a messy issue from next year’s calendar.
There is also a thorny local controversy. Should the new president replace U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Mr. Obama’s fund-raising patron, Tony Rezko, and is investigating high-profile Democrats?
Mr. Obama was elected a little over two weeks ago. But already it may be dawning on him that making promises is harder than keeping them and setting expectations is easier than meeting them. If he doesn’t know this yet, he’ll know it on Jan. 20.
Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.