It seems as if a lifetime has passed since the 2008 presidential election. John McCain’s Keystone Cops campaign is a hazy memory. The daily media barrage aimed at Sarah Palin has vanished. And the notion that Republicans might retain the White House during the greatest financial meltdown in seventy years now seems like a distant pipe dream. Meanwhile, in the interim between the election and the start of the new year, the country has learned a bit more about its president-elect.
He hasn’t downloaded voluminous policy plans or divulged his deepest thoughts, but his actions — and decisions not to act — during the transition period suggest that he may not be exactly what either his supporters hoped or his opponents feared. The contours of his agenda are still not crystal clear, but some of the blanks have been filled in over the last two months.
For starters, the fear of some on the Right — and the hope of those on the Left — that President-elect Obama was an ultra-dove, a sort of Manchurian candidate, has been largely discredited. His choice of a national security team filled with center-right figures and even a Bush administration defense secretary has shaken the Left. His plans for a gradual draw down of U.S. troops in Iraq and a prompt buildup in Afghanistan are virtually indistinguishable from McCain’s. So long as terrorists are on the rampage in Mumbai and Hamas incites a new round of Middle East violence, one suspects the dawning of a new age of world peace and togetherness will be a long time in coming. And it doesn’t appear that Iran’s President Ahmadinejad or Cuba’s Raul Castro will be coming for tea at the White House anytime soon.
We have also learned that the media’s love affair with the president-elect is largely unrequited. He dumped the transition team report regarding his staff’s contacts with Blago the afternoon before a holiday, gave pabulum or non-answers at press conferences, and ditched the press pool to take his kids to an amusement park. The imbalance in his press relationship — devotion on one side and evasion, verging on testiness, on the other — may suggest rockier times lay ahead.
President-elect Obama also demonstrated a reticence to weigh in on big and contentious issues when the end game was far from certain. He stayed away from the Georgia Senate run-off race, refused comment on the Gaza incursion, was mostly mum on the car bailout battle, and largely deferred comment on the unfilled Senate seats scattered about the country. What remains to be seen is whether this will be his presidential modus operandi — sort of a Zen-like indifference to storms raging about him — or whether he is just waiting to spring into action on January 20.
We also confirmed, if there was any doubt remaining, that New Politics was a convenient campaign slogan and a hook for energizing the Democratic base, but not much more. The Clinton team is back in great numbers, Tom Daschle wasn’t barred by whatever ironclad rule supposedly existed to bar former lobbyists from serving in high positions, and “transparency” in government doesn’t extend to answering questions President-elect Obama doesn’t like or revealing the interest groups which met with his transition team. This seems roughly on par with the degree of openness and interest group influence on display during the Bush administration.
President-elect Obama also let it be known he’s not interested in continuing the culture wars. Rick Warren got an invite to the inauguration and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military may get a reprieve. Gay supporters and elite columnists might not like it, but Obama made it plain that social issues are not high on his priority list, nor does he plan on doing much of anything to alienate social conservatives.
In the last couple of months we also figured out that President-elect Obama has a low threshold for fools. That’s bad news for Vice President-elect Biden, whose job has been downsized and now seems headed for the rubber chicken and funeral circuits. It’s good news for highly credentialed policy wonks. President-elect Obama has stocked his cabinet with brainy Ivy Leaguers and big personalities. That might not guarantee wise decisions or much input from private sector high achievers, but he has avoided placing dim-witted cronies in important positions.
How this will play out once Obama is sworn is still an open question. Will he be a wishy-washy, indecisive figure like Jimmy Carter or a savvy deal-maker like LBJ? Will he be more like George W. Bush on national security than either his supporters or opponents ever imagined? Obama remains more of a mystery than most presidential victors, in part because he carefully crafted ambiguity and avoided taking tough stances during the campaign. That will certainly need to end once he is responsible for daily decisions on everything from economic recovery to the war on terror.
But, if the transition is any clue, he is unlikely to be a radical, rely on underqualified yes men, spend too much time with the press, involve himself in extraneous issues, or refight divisive cultural issues. That is not a bad recipe for success.