Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Obama Sends Strong Signals From the Sidelines


by: Peter Wallsten, The Los Angeles Times

President-elect Barack Obama worked closely with their Economic Advisory Board to establish plans for the economy. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

Washington - With a series of forceful actions in recent days, amid an almost unprecedented set of challenges, Barack Obama has taken an unusual step for a president-elect: attempting to alter the country's perilous course even before he takes office.

The most dramatic example came Saturday, when Obama announced a far more aggressive economic stimulus plan than previously promised - a two-year program to addd 2.5 million jobs he said represented "an early down payment on the type of reform my administration will bring to Washington."

That announcement was the latest indication that the president-elect has decided to use the transition period to influence events at a time of crisis, when the current administration appears powerless to stem the slide.

"There's no question that Bush is still president, but people are looking for signs to see what's going to happen going forward," said an Obama aide who, like others, requested anonymity when discussing deliberations inside the transition. "We're going to attempt to do that in this period."

Names Team Quickly

Obama has moved with unusual speed to fill most of his top White House staff positions. And in recent days, he settled on a number of key Cabinet appointments designed to remove the uncertainty that has sparked turbulence and replace it with a sense of confidence.

He offered the all-important job of Treasury secretary to a pragmatic and experienced regulator, Tim Geithner, and reached out to former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton to tap an experienced figure known around the world as the country's top diplomat. After the Geithner selection was reported Friday, the Dow Jones soared nearly 500 points.

On Monday, the president-elect will emerge from two weeks of near-seclusion to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his economics team for a news conference that aides hope will help restore calm.

Obama's aggressive posture marks an evolution inside his transition team since the immediate aftermath of the Nov. 4 election.

The shift comes as Obama and his aides have been discussing how hands-off he should be now that circumstances are changing so dramatically - with stocks tumblling, negotiations stalling over an economic stimulus plan and a possible automobile industry bailout, and another financial giant, Citigroup, at risk.

"A Balancing Act"

The quandary for Obama has been how to finesse a set of challenges not seen since 1932: a quickly deteriorating economy and a transition of power between two presidents with vastly different views on how to fix it. Aides are wary that further declines will make the new president's job harder, but they also do not want to take ownership of problems they do not yet have the formal power to fix.

"They recognize it's a careful balancing act because you want to bring a whole new face to it when you're in office," said Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton who has been an informal adviser to Obama's aides. "But at the same time, there's an underlying concern that things seem to be deteriorating rapidly."

Panetta said the country is "caught between a president who doesn't have a lot of credibility even if he tries to do something, and a new president who, if it looks like he's going to lay out things he's going to try to do, it looks like he's putting the cart before the horse."

With the financial markets and the public clearly looking for reassurance, Saturday's announcement - and Monday's news conference - signal that the transitiion has entered a phase in which the president-elect will become more visible and vocal. Obama has yet to stake out a firm position on the auto bailout being discussed on Capitol Hill, but he could as he takes questions Monday on his ideas to reverse the country's economic woes.

The balancing act was apparent recently as Obama worked behind the scenes to settle on a series of gravitas-heavy Cabinet appointments and looked for creative ways to signal policy changes.

A recent videotaped message, shown to European Olympic officials in which Obama endorsed a bid by his hometown of Chicago to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, sent a broad signal about changing U.S. foreign policy. "In the coming years, my administration will bring a fresh perspective on America's role and responsibilities around the world," Obama said.

That is likely to be the message sent when Obama in the coming days officially announces Hillary Clinton's appointment and lays out the rest of his national security team.

History Lessons

Panetta said he hopes Obama will use public appearances to introduce his Cabinet officials and key advisers and explain why each was chosen. "He's got to take advantage of at least some public interviews to convey to the American people a sense of hope that things are going to be OK," Panetta said.

Experts said thatObama seemed to be heeding lessons from past presidents' mistakes.

Historians have pointed to parallels between this year and the 1932 transition from President Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Historians believe Roosevelt was hampered by his refusal to cooperate with Hoover's administration on strategies to help draw the country out of economic depression.

And in 1992, according to President Clinton aides, he waited too long to hire his top White House staff and moved too quickly and sloppily to begin hiring Cabinet officials. The result was he relied too heavily on campaign advisers to build a government.

Obama, in contrast, has named most of his top staff aides - includingg veterans from that Clinton White House - and is workinng with those staffers to help build out the rest of the administration. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a Chicago congressman and former Clinton aide, is considered an expert in policy and the politics of Capitol Hill.

"What Obama has done is to build the circle around him responsible for managing the decision-making, and now he is working from there," said Terry Sullivan, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina and a member of a consortium of scholars who study White House transitions. "I don't know whether he is sending signals that he is ready to govern, or if he is simply becoming ready to govern."

Obama also has set the table for swift action on policies that might stem anxiety.

On health care reform, he will rely on his health and human services chief, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a master of the legislative process, along with his new budget director, Peter Orszag, a noted health-care-policy expert with credibility on both sides of the debate over how to make insurance more affordable.

On immigration, an issue viewed by business groups as a key economic concern, Obama can rely on his likely choice for homeland security secretary, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, known for her pragmatic views on the issue but support for tough border enforcement.

Even as he credits Obama for sending strong signals in a time of crisis, Panetta added that nothing in the transition matters as much as the messages when he is president.

"The ultimate test of whether we can change is whether he can govern," Panetta said. "We won't know that until he walks into the Oval Office and makes the decisions that tell us who he really is."


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