It is one of the ironies of politics and history that when the candidate of change was pondering what he would do if he actually got elected President, he turned to the man who eight years before handed over the White House keys to George W. Bush. Former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta had met Barack Obama only a few times before the Democratic nominee summoned him to Chicago in August to ask him to begin planning a transition. Podesta supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and had little in common with Obama beyond the fact that they are both skinny guys from Chicago. Yet it is hard to think of a Democrat in Washington who can match Podesta's organizational abilities or his knowledge of the inner workings of government. And Obama was already giving plenty of thought to the crucial 76 days between the election and the Inauguration. "He understood that in order to be successful, he had to be ready," says Podesta, who is now a co-chairman of the transition team. "And he had to be ready fast."
Even in the calmest of times, the transfer of presidential power is a tricky maneuver, especially when it involves one party ceding the office to another. But not since Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in the midst of the Depression has a new President faced a set of challenges quite as formidable as those that await Obama. That's why Obama has been quicker off the blocks in setting up his government than any of his recent predecessors were, particularly Bill Clinton, who did not announce a single major appointment until mid-December. As the President-elect put it in his first radio address, "We don't have a moment to lose." (See pictures of Obama's victory celebration in Chicago.)
Not only did Obama name a White House chief of staff two days after the election, but he also began to fill 120,000 sq. ft. (11,000 sq m) of office space in downtown Washington with a transition operation that is ultimately expected to have a staff of 450 and a budget of $12 million, more than half of which must be raised from private funds. Obama's goal, says his old friend Valerie Jarrett, another co-chair of the transition operation, "is to be able to be organized, efficient, disciplined and transparent to the American people." More disciplined than transparent: Washington's quadrennial parlor game is in full swing, with scores of names being circulated as contenders for top jobs in the Obama Administration. But the number of people who actually know anything is small, and they are not prone to leaking.
The transition provides an early glimpse of how the Obama team will conduct itself in power and a test of how much change it really will bring to Washington. As the cascade of crises grows the collapse of General Motors being the latest the President-elect won't have time to settle in before making big decisions. In a real sense, the moves Obama makes in the next six weeks may help define what kind of President he will be. The appointments he makes, the way he engineers his government, how fast he gets everything in place each of those things will determine whether he stumbles or bursts out of the starting gate and whether he sets forth a clear or an incoherent agenda for governing.
By all indications, this is shaping up to be one of the most amicable transfers of power between the parties in recent years thanks in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Planning for the handoff was under way well before the Obamas paid a visit to the Bushes at the White House on Nov. 10 for a tour of the place that they, their daughters and the new President's mother-in-law will soon be calling home. Since September, Podesta has been quietly working with current White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and Bolten's deputy, Blake Gottesman, to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible. Bolten and Gottesman have been offering advice on which posts need to be filled quickest and making their personnel available to Obama advisers. More than 100 interim security clearances have already been granted to Obama aides. "If a crisis hits on Jan. 21, they're the ones who are going to have to deal with it," Bolten said in an interview with C-SPAN. "We need to make sure that they're as well prepared as possible."
The most labor-intensive phase is about to begin, as teams of Obama aides descend on more than 100 federal departments and agencies to begin poring over their operations. Meanwhile, the new Administration is looking for more than 300 Cabinet secretaries, deputies and assistant secretaries, plus upwards of 2,500 political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation. Not that there will be any lack of candidates: in the first five days after Obama's team set up its Change.gov website, 144,000 applications poured in.