As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to fill top positions for his incoming government, he faces a stubborn reality: Some of the key individuals he will rely upon to tackle the country's most serious challenges are holdovers from the current administration – a trio of Bush appointees who will likely stay in place for at least the first year or two of Obama's presidency.
The Fed's consensus builder
Few officials will be as pivotal in Obama's first years in office as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a leading authority on the Great Depression who is helping lead the country through a likely recession.
Bernanke was appointed by Bush to a four-year term that began in early 2006, under a system designed to keep the Fed independent from political pressure. But the Fed chairman also serves as the economist in chief, routinely meeting with the president to offer advice and collaborating closely with the Treasury secretary.
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Obama and Bernanke have spoken on the phone several times, and met in person once, at Obama's request. In that meeting, held in Bernanke's office, Obama stressed that he respects the independence of the Fed. That suggests he will follow the recent precedent, set by Clinton and Bush, of not jawboning the central bank toward his preferred monetary policy, as aides to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush did.
A troop withdrawal debate
On Thursday, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a note to his staff members, urging them to assist the Obama team.
“Transitions of administrations have in the past proven challenging and even awkward,” he wrote. “Our duty will be to remain apolitical.”
As Obama's chief military adviser for at least the next year, Mullen will lay out options for Iraq and Afghanistan, define the global risks the military faces, weigh the strain on the force and advise on budget priorities. On the two wars, Mullen's views align broadly with those of the president-elect: He sees an urgent need to devote more troops and resources to Afghanistan, and he supports continuing troop reductions from Iraq.
But there are also important differences: Although Obama has long cast Afghanistan as the only legitimate war to pursue in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mullen's priorities for that country are driven more by the escalating insurgency since 2006 than by any sense that Iraq is the wrong war for U.S. troops.
In Mullen's ranking of military priorities, Iraq takes precedence, then Afghanistan, followed by finding ways to reduce the overall strain on the nation's fighting forces.
From 9-11 to local crime
FBI Director Robert Mueller took over as FBI director days before terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Since then, he has scrambled to reorient the bureau toward domestic intelligence gathering.
Behind the scenes, Mueller has pushed back on some of the more controversial legal policy decisions during the George W. Bush years. In 2004, along with other senior Justice officials, Mueller was prepared to resign over the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. He removed FBI agents from interrogation sessions of terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba after hearing allegations of abuse.
Obama will have direct contact with Mueller at weekly threat briefings, during which he will receive raw intelligence about terrorist movements. In some areas, Mueller has signaled agreement with Obama's priorities. In a rarity among Bush administration officials, Mueller has backed calls by local and state police for more resources to combat traditional crimes. Obama, too, has called for more funds to support such authorities.
But the FBI may part company with Obama on other issues. Mueller has championed new guidelines, set to take effect Dec. 1, that give agents pursuing terrorism leads the power to conduct long-term surveillance of suspects, engage in pretext interviews in which agents conceal their identities and infiltrate groups that the FBI thinks may threaten national security. Obama has not spoken out on the guidelines, which have roiled civil-liberties advocates, but has indicated support for more oversight of the FBI's intelligence operations.