Obama Faces Challenge of Change

Monterey County Herald, November 9, 2008
By Leon E. Panetta

The presidential election of 2008 was a proud moment for the United States. Not only did record numbers of young and new voters go to the polls, they turned the electoral map of the past four elections on its head. Red and blue states alike voted for change.

Change will forever mark the 2008 presidential election — change in terms of electing the first black man as president; change in the hope that our elected leaders can finally work together to solve the problems of the nation; change that we can heal our economy and resolve the war in Iraq; and change that people can again trust in the presidency.

But voting for change does not make it happen. President Barack Obama will face incredible barriers to making our democratic institutions work again.

The day he walks into the Oval Office, he will inherit the largest deficit in history, approaching $1 trillion, an economy sliding into a deep recession, and responsibility to implement a $700 billion rescue plan for the banks. All of this will limit his ability to solve the other crises impacting the nation and to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign.

On Capitol Hill, he will have a large Democratic majority in the House and the Senate and a smaller, more conservative Republican minority. Democrats will be eager to enact a long agenda of legislation that has been blocked in the past eight years, and Republicans will be struggling to define themselves after a disastrous election. These are not the best ingredients for bipartisan cooperation.

The reputation of the United States in the international community has been badly damaged. It will not be that easy to restore alliances and relationships. The world will be more willing to test our economic, international and military strength.

Finally, the reality is that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get all of the new president’s team put in place early. There are inherent delays in the confirmation process, background checks take time, and there are literally hundreds of sub-cabinet and staff jobs that have to be filled. It is difficult to implement new policies if it takes six to eight months to put the president’s team in place.

In the face of these challenges, these are some of the key steps the 44th president of the United States must take to have a chance at governing effectively:

White House Team. Obama must move quickly to put his top White House team in place. He has already appointed his chief of staff and should get a national security adviser in place quickly. By selecting his key aides early, he will have the support team he needs to make crucial personnel, Cabinet and policy decisions. Fortunately, these positions do not have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Transition on the economy and national security. The most important issues facing the new president are threats to our economy and national security. The banks’ rescue package has put the president virtually in charge of the credit systems in the nation. Others will be lining up for bailouts, such as the auto industry and state and local governments.

The president’s economic team—the secretaries of treasury, commerce and labor, along with the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Economic Council—should be named by mid-November to assure a smooth transition on economic policies. The same is true for the national security team — the secretaries of state and defense, the U.N. ambassador, the head of the CIA and the national security adviser. With the war on terror, there is no room for gaps in protecting the nation.

Bipartisanship. Despite the fact both political parties have been locked in bitter trench warfare for more than a decade, Obama has promised to change the partisanship and gridlock in Washington. That will not be easy. The first step would be to appoint Republicans to key cabinet positions. One suggestion would be to retain Bob Gates as secretary of defense. He has provided balanced and thoughtful leadership and would assure a smooth transition on defense issues.

Obama will have to reach out to the bipartisan leadership in the Congress and seek their advice and counsel on key issues. The reason the parties have been unable and unwilling to work together is that there is no trust between them or in the president. They don’t believe they can put issues on the table and discuss them honestly for fear the opposition will stab them in the back. If the president can restore a degree of trust, that might set the stage for greater bipartisan cooperation.

First 100 days. The new president must begin to focus on a strategy for the first 100 days of his presidency and beyond. The steps he takes or fails to take in the early days could well define his presidency. Presidents Carter and Clinton got off on the wrong foot by taking on issues that were divisive and difficult to pass. Obama would do well to focus on an economic stimulus package, set a clear strategy for Iraq, and make an effort at comprehensive energy reform. He should consider what policies can be changed by executive action. For example, issuing executive orders on issues such as prohibiting torture or closing Guantanamo Bay would make clear that his administration will do things differently.

Unify the nation. Obama will never be able to confront any of the crises facing the nation unless he unifies the American people and maintains their trust. Unfortunately, President Bush had the opportunity to unify the nation after 9/11 and after his last election. Each time he failed. Too often, he took the trust of the people for granted by acting as if he was somehow not accountable to the will of the people. The result was a failed presidency.

The greatest occupational hazard for any president is isolation — from the people, from the issues, from reality. Obama must never surrender his humanity to the trappings of power. If he preserves the unique bond he has established with those who elected him by being honest with them, he will not only help unify the country, but will mobilize the most powerful weapon a president has in our democracy—the voice of the people.

History will forever recall the election of 2008 as one of great change. But to change is to govern. Obama clearly has shown that he had the leadership to run one of the most effective campaigns in recent memory. His ultimate legacy as president will be determined by his leadership to govern the nation.
LEON PANETTA, was White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton administration and a Central Coast congressman.  His column appears every other month in opinion. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.