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Transition Holds Clues to Obama Governance
January 20, 2009, 10:46 am
Filed under: world news

On the day before moving into the nation’s most storied house, Barack Obama visited a shelter for teenagers with no home. With sleeves rolled up, he spent a few minutes painting for the benefit of the cameras that trail him everywhere now. The latest on the inauguration of Barack Obama and other news from Washington and around the nation. Join the discussion.
* Election Results | More Politics NewsMr. Obama arrives at the presidency Tuesday after a transition that betrayed little if any perspiration and no hint of nervousness. Throughout the 77 days since his election, he has been a font of cool confidence, never too hot, never too cold, seemingly undaunted by the magnitude of troubles awaiting him and unbothered by the few setbacks that have tripped him up.
He remains hard to read or label — centrist in his appointments and bipartisan in his style, yet also pushing the broadest expansion of government in generations. He has reached across old boundaries to build the foundation of an administration that will be charged with hauling the country out of crisis, but for all the outreach he has made it clear he is centralizing policy making in the White House.
He will eventually have to choose between competing advice and priorities, risking the disappointment or anger of constituencies that for the moment can still see in him what they hope to see.
What the country has seen of his leadership style so far evokes the discipline of George W. Bush and the curiosity of Bill Clinton. Mr. Obama is not shy about making decisions and making them expeditiously — he assembled his team in record time — but he has also sought to tap into the nation’s intellectual dialogue at a time of great ferment. He has set out ideas for governance even before taking office, but he has also adapted the details as conditions changed.
More than any president since he was an infant, Mr. Obama has taken a place in society that extends beyond political leadership. He is as much symbol as substance, an icon for the young and a sign of deliverance for an older generation that never believed a man with his skin color would ascend those steps to vow to preserve, protect and defend a Constitution that originally counted a black man as three-fifths of a person.
He is a celebrity president in a celebrity culture, cooed over for his shirtless physique on the beach and splashed on the cover of every magazine from Foreign Policy to People. What his political opponents sought to portray in the campaign as arrogance is now presented by his aides as comfort with power and the responsibilities that go along with it.
“He sort of lives in a grudge-free zone,” said John D. Podesta, a co-chairman of his transition team. “He’s capable of taking on board a lot of information and making good decisions. He knows he’s going to make mistakes. But he also knows that you’ve got to do the best you can, make tough decisions and move on.”
Some of those mistakes may owe in part to that signature confidence. Mr. Obama knew and liked Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, initially overlooking an investigation into state contracts that later sank his nomination for commerce secretary. Likewise, Mr. Obama forged a personal connection with Timothy F. Geithner and picked him for Treasury secretary, choosing to disregard Mr. Geithner’s past failure to pay some of his taxes.
Little has emerged about the process behind those episodes, but aides described Mr. Obama’s decision making as crisp and efficient. When he sits down for meetings, they said, he starts by framing questions he wants answered, then gives each person a chance to talk, while also engaging them. At the end, he typically sums up what he has learned and where he is leaning. A late-night person, he often follows up with calls to aides at 10 p.m. or later, after he has put his daughters to bed.
Mr. Podesta would not describe how the decision had been made to pull Mr. Richardson’s nomination but said it had played out over just nine hours rather than days, which limited the damage. “We saw the problem, understood it, Bill understood it wasn’t viable, and we stopped it,” Mr. Podesta said.
That contrasts with Mr. Clinton, who liked free-ranging discussion and took time making decisions. Mr. Podesta, Mr. Clinton’s last White House chief of staff, described the former president as brilliant at “thinking laterally” across subject areas. “One thing that seemed not to have taken on Bill Clinton is law school,” he said. “I tend to think of the president-elect as approaching a problem in a more logical, more drill-down sort of way.”


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