Transition Holds Clues to How Obama Will Govern
WASHINGTON — 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.
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Cara Fuller, a shelter worker, asked if he was sweating.
“Nah, I don’t sweat,” he told her. “You ever see me sweat?”
Not yet. But then again, it is still early.
Mr. 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.”
Mr. Obama opted not to play it safe during the transition. He brought his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, into the cabinet, and angered gay and liberal supporters by inviting the Rev. Rick Warren, an opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, to give the inaugural invocation. Although Mr. Obama deferred foreign affairs with his “one president at a time” rule, that did not apply to domestic policy, where he lobbied Congress to release $350 billion in financial bailout money and set about negotiating roughly $800 billion in spending programs and tax breaks.
“He’s got the political courage to look at things and be bold,” said Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s who has spent time with Mr. Obama since the election. “The political wisdom is go slow, take the easy way first and build up some victories.”
Mr. Rendell said Mr. Obama did not mind taking risks. “He’s goal-oriented, not process-oriented,” he said. “If he does some things that are unorthodox or tick off his friends to achieve a goal, he’ll do that.”
But Mr. Obama made a point of engaging adversaries, dining with conservative columnists and talking with Republican congressmen. “He and his transition team have reached out to the Hill more than any transition team I’ve seen,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader. “So far, so good. But running a campaign and running a transition are going to be different than governing, because governing is about making choices.”
Mr. Boehner noted that Mr. Obama had originally reserved 40 percent of his economic package for tax cuts but now seemed to be heeding Democrats pushing for more spending. “At some point he’s going to have to tell people what he’s for,” Mr. Boehner said, “and then we’ll see whether he really wants to govern from the middle or cave into the liberals in his party.”
Mr. Obama’s outreach to Republicans has paid dividends. He wooed enough Republican senators to release the bailout money. Even some he did not convince muted their opposition. For instance, he called Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, who opposed more bailout money without a commitment that it be used only for the financial sector, not other industries.
“They didn’t want to shut the door, and if I were them maybe I wouldn’t either,” Mr. Coburn said. “But I wanted the door shut.” After Mr. Obama’s call, he said, “I was quiet as I voted against it.”
Mr. Obama has built a broader base of public support than many incoming presidents. Representative Artur Davis, Democrat of Alabama, said 53 percent of white voters in his conservative state now had favorable views of Mr. Obama, compared with 17 percent before the election. “He has been pragmatic,” Mr. Davis said, “and even many voters who voted against him see him as prepared to govern in a pragmatic, nonideological way.”
But Mr. Obama has been harder to peg than that, and the next few months should flesh out his governing philosophy.
“I don’t think it maps into traditional right-left, but nor is it Bill Clinton-like triangulation,” said Robert B. Reich, Mr. Clinton’s labor secretary and an economic adviser to Mr. Obama. “My sense is he genuinely believes that people can come to a rough consensus about big problems and work together effectively. I don’t really get a sense of ideological position. He’s obviously a man of strong convictions, but they don’t fall into the standard boxes.”