Transitional realities

It’s good to be Barack Obama. They sell bobble-head dolls of you on every street corner in Washington, these days. On television, you can’t watch a show without seeing an ad for an authentic, limited edition, museum quality commemorative tea cozy. Dog breeders are climbing all over themselves to provide you with the next first ...

589497_090114_Obama_1.14_resized2.jpg
589497_090114_Obama_1.14_resized2.jpg

It's good to be Barack Obama. They sell bobble-head dolls of you on every street corner in Washington, these days. On television, you can't watch a show without seeing an ad for an authentic, limited edition, museum quality commemorative tea cozy. Dog breeders are climbing all over themselves to provide you with the next first puppy. Admittedly, you are about to take on the most difficult job in the world and all those wonderful folks in the media who fawned you into power are about to turn on you. But still, right now, at the threshold of history, Obama has got to be feeling pretty good about things.

I hope he is also feeling lucky. Timing is everything in comedy and that includes politics. A great case in point is how timing has shaped public views and attitudes toward his transition. (As it did attitudes toward his election.) The crisis, the desperate desire for things to be better, for better leadership, for solutions to our financial and international security challenges, have all colored the coverage of the transition and hence, the reaction to it in ways that can only have Bill Clinton or George Bush deeply envious.

It’s good to be Barack Obama. They sell bobble-head dolls of you on every street corner in Washington, these days. On television, you can’t watch a show without seeing an ad for an authentic, limited edition, museum quality commemorative tea cozy. Dog breeders are climbing all over themselves to provide you with the next first puppy. Admittedly, you are about to take on the most difficult job in the world and all those wonderful folks in the media who fawned you into power are about to turn on you. But still, right now, at the threshold of history, Obama has got to be feeling pretty good about things.

I hope he is also feeling lucky. Timing is everything in comedy and that includes politics. A great case in point is how timing has shaped public views and attitudes toward his transition. (As it did attitudes toward his election.) The crisis, the desperate desire for things to be better, for better leadership, for solutions to our financial and international security challenges, have all colored the coverage of the transition and hence, the reaction to it in ways that can only have Bill Clinton or George Bush deeply envious.

The Obama transition has been hailed as a great success, a disciplined counter-point to others in recent memory. But, really? Let’s just thumb through the transition headlines of the past few weeks. It began almost immediately with the appointment of Rahm Emanuel and within short order, embarrassing statements from his father, the Blago scandal and Emanuel’s mishandled, contentious exchanges with the press. Penny Pritzker was secretary of commerce there for an hour or two before they back tracked from that and then, of course, her replacement Bill Richardson while grumbling to far too many people that he really wanted to be secretary of state came and then was forced to go in fairly short order. USTR pick Xavier Becerra was pulled at the last minute (though of course, he said it was his decision) and was replaced by a guy, Ron Kirk, with virtually no trade experience. Despite the administration’s stance against lobbyists, Kirk was also a registered lobbyist, and slowly too the administration backed away from their original, unkeepable promise to keep them out of their team (for good reason I think but without much press about the change).

Concerns about Eric Holder’s ties to the Marc Rich pardon cropped up.  Somebody failed to let Diane Feinstein know that Leon Panetta was going to be the nominee at CIA. Too many special envoys and White House officials without portfolio have been appointed. Rifts between different camps on the foreign policy side have also broken out. Obama has even had that old standard, a nannygate problem, with Treasury nominee Tim Geithner’s problems regarding a housekeeper’s immigration status and an additional set of old tax missteps. Problems on the policy front have also emerged with Obama forced to back-track from a proposal to create tax breaks for small businesses that created jobs, to back-track from the promise of putting a cap and trade system into place sooner rather than later and the plan to have a stimulus in place within a couple days of his taking office looking increasingly less feasible.

Imagine how Zoe Baird and Lani Guinier must feel watching all this. In different times, like the early 90s, these problems would quickly have been spun into controversies and controversies would have turned into failed nominations and recriminations. But now, there is a general tendency to overlook all this and shrug it off as an inevitable by-product of the complex business of setting up a government.

And of course, it is just that. And shrugging it off is probably precisely the right way to handle it. And the main objective of the transition-putting together a first rate team-has been accomplished extraordinarily well. Similarly, making policy often means making compromises and prioritizing among goals in ways that often leave disappointed constituencies. But no one is served by pretending what has been typically bumpy has actually been smooth. Expectations (both within and outside the government) end up out of whack with reality. Where Obama has been good…as he often has…he deserves credit for it. But where he has just been lucky, it is worth acknowledging it for what it is. And where the press has simply got the story wrong as they often have about the nature of this transition, they ought to be called on it.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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