November 5, 2008 / 11:10 AM / 9 years ago

Government readies to change with new president

<p>President-elect Sen. Barack Obama faces supporters during his election night victory rally in Chicago, November 4, 2008.Jim Bourg</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama, fresh from winning Tuesday's historic presidential vote, now moves to one of the trickiest phases in U.S. politics: the transition of the chief executive and the legions of political appointees who follow him into government.

Political analysts agree Obama has to move quickly. The handover comes as U.S. troops fight two wars, the economy sinks into its worst crisis since the Great Depression and officials urge vigilance against the threat of terrorist attack.

Clay Johnson, who headed the 2001 transition for the incoming administration of President George W. Bush, said the United States could not afford the average 90 days it took for senior Bush appointees to be approved by Congress.

"It needs to be dramatically faster, particularly in a time of war," Johnson told a seminar on the transition process, adding that the White House and both campaigns had this year started work early to ensure a seamless and speedy transfer of power.

The stakes for the Democratic President-elect are high. Global markets await news on who will become Treasury Secretary -- a question many hope to have answered by November 15, when Washington will host a global summit on the international credit crisis.

And nominees for portfolios such as defense and international affairs will indicate how the new administration plans to carry out its campaign promises.

Obama, speaking before Tuesday's election, said he considered it important to have Republicans in the cabinet, but gave few clues on who might get the nod. "I have a good idea of who the candidates would be," he said.

POLITICAL LIMBO

The period between the November 4 election and the January 20 inauguration can be a political limbo for the U.S. government in which national leadership lines are blurred between outgoing and incoming presidents.

Meanwhile, many top officials also begin their own transition -- a changing of the guard which can see many of the some 7,000 political appointees in government walk out the door, taking their expertise with them.

"For most offices, memory goes with the administration. There's very little left behind," said Dr. Martha Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University and co-founder of the White House Transition Project, a coalition of scholars and policy institutions which seeks to aid future transitions.

Kumar recalls one newly minted Clinton administration official who showed up for his first day of work and found an office with six telephones -- all of them ringing.

"He thought: if I answer them, what am I going to say," she said.

Of course, most career federal workers stay on the job and the government -- and the military -- continues to function.

But for many leading civil servants, the transition headquarters becomes a White House-in-waiting -- its comings and goings monitored for signals of who will take over the levers of power in the new administration.

"You want to look at undersecretaries, deputy secretaries -- people like that," Kumar said. "And one of the lessons of the Clinton administration is you don't start with the cabinet, you start with White House staff -- that gives you a decision-making system in place."

CHURN AND CHANGE

Max Stier of the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service, who has attended White House meetings to coordinate this year's process, said government continuity could suffer in an environment of both staff and ideological change.

"Typically in a transition the new people come in thinking they have to reinvent the world," Stier said. "The whole machinery of government slows down."

The president-elect's team must draw up lists of nominees for the some 1,200 jobs that require Senate confirmation, a process which in the past has led to political confrontations early in a new president's term.

Legislation passed in 2004 allowed both campaigns to request early security clearances for potential senior office-holders, making it easier to get them quickly approved, into office and in control of national policy.

"The No. 1 sign that will tell whether this transition is working is how quickly they get their team's names up to the Senate," Stier said.

Editing by Eric Walsh

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