Faced with one of the most important transfers of presidential power in U.S. history – amid wars on two fronts, the looming threat of terrorism at home, and a full-blown economic crisis – the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama team have responded with nearly unprecedented cooperation on those issues, aides and outside experts say.
Serious decisions still remain for the politically and ideologically divided camps – in particular, battles over the regulations and executive orders that will define the policy of the two administrations.
But the days since Tuesday's election have shown a striking level of comity, enhanced by President Bush's months-long efforts to pave the way for a smooth transition and President-elect Obama's pre-election determination to move quickly.
“Ensuring that this transition is seamless is a top priority for the rest of my time in office,” Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “My administration will work hard to ensure that the next president and his team can hit the ground running.”
Bush has created a transition coordinating council, populated by experts from inside and outside the administration, and has streamlined the process for obtaining security clearances for key transition officials.
The Obama team has begun submitting names to the FBI for expedited security clearances. Officials said that more than 100 positions, down to the level of undersecretary, are eligible under the statute.
Bush's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, said the White House is even preparing a “tabletop” exercise to simulate how Obama's national security officials should respond in the event of a terrorist attack.
“If a crisis hits on Jan. 21, they're the ones that are going to have to deal with it,” Bolten said in an interview taped for broadcast today on C-SPAN. “We need to make sure they're as well-prepared as possible.”
Likewise, the administration is laying the groundwork for an unusual level of access to the Treasury Department and other agencies in attempts to stabilize the economy. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Friday that Treasury is preparing office space that will allow Obama aides to sit alongside current administration officials.
He said such efforts are intended to send a signal that Treasury's approach won't change too abruptly when Obama takes office. “They don't want to surprise markets; they want to try to make sure that they have predictable information for markets,” he said.
Bush and Obama are scheduled to meet at the White House on Monday, after a long and tough campaign in which Obama's chief charge was that a vote for Republican rival John McCain would be a vote for a third Bush term.
The rhetoric has cooled since Tuesday, and Bolten said the president takes it in stride when he has “had some bad stuff said about him.”
Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, who has been involved in presidential transitions since the Eisenhower administration, is among those who are impressed by the efforts.
“I'm not sure I've ever seen an outgoing administration work as hard at saying the right thing,” Hess said in an interview Friday. “This is really quite memorable.”
Within three days of his election, Obama announced a full transition team and named a chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who brings both congressional and White House experience.
Obama seems determined to avoid some of the mistakes of the last Democrat to hold the office; Bill Clinton's transition after his 1992 election is considered one of the most chaotic in recent times.
Obama held a news conference Friday that ensured his first public comments as president-elect were focused on his top priority, the economy. Clinton generally avoided reporters, and his first impromptu remarks to the media, on gays in the military at a Veterans Day event, set his administration off on a divisive sidetrack.
That said, there are many hazards ahead for the Obama transition, and ill-fated or poorly executed nominations for Cabinet positions are only one.
Many decisions about the economy cannot wait for Obama to take office on Jan. 20, and despite the efforts at cooperation, the president and the president-elect are hardly in agreement.
Fratto and other White House aides have emphasized that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other senior administration officials will still have the final call on decisions about financial rescue efforts.
A financial summit among world leaders on Nov. 15 in Washington could bring out the differences in sharp relief, although Bolten pledges cooperation.
“We are trying to coordinate as closely as we can with the Obama folks so that they are at a minimum apprised and hopefully completely on board with the strategy that we're pursuing, because this summit is really only the first in a series,” Bolten said.
Paul Light, a transition expert at New York University, said there is a natural friction as the Obama team begins the search for regulations and executive orders it wants to overturn as quickly as possible, and as Bush policymakers try to find ways to make their impact more permanent. For now, however, he agrees with the other experts on the high level of cordiality on both sides.
“It really is a nice moment for the United States to show how the transfer of power goes,” he said.