CHICAGO – Basking in his historic victory, President-elect Barack Obama went to work Wednesday setting up a government – naming a transition team and asking a brash Chicago congressman to run his staff.
In Washington, President Bush promised to keep Obama in the loop on critical decisions, warned adversaries not to assume America would let down its guard now or after the inauguration, and made clear the nation has only one president at a time.
This will be the first wartime transition in 40 years, and Bush vowed a seamless shift of responsibilities as he invited the next first family to visit their new home soon.
“It will be a stirring sight to watch President Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their beautiful girls step through the doors of the White House,” he said.
“This moment is especially uplifting for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights with their own eyes.”
But he made clear that he won’t coast to Jan. 20, when he’ll return to Texas.
“There’s important work to do in the months ahead,” he said, vowing that “I will keep the president-elect fully informed on important decisions.”
As president-elect, Obama is entitled to daily, top-secret CIA briefings. The first is expected today. On Wednesday, he made no public appearance, holing up with aides at a downtown Chicago office, naming leaders of his transition team.
“Every time a president takes office, there are a lot of issues on the table. But not like this, where you have a president come in the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown,” said Mickey Edwards, a respected expert on governing and former GOP congressional leader from Oklahoma. “He can’t waste time. He’s got to be ready at noon on Jan. 20th.”
The commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks cited lethargic transition planning as a critical vulnerability. Planning has been under way for months at the White House and within the Obama campaign, though it now kicks into high gear.
John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff, has been quietly running the Obama operation for months. On Wednesday, Obama announced that he would co-chair the transition team with his longtime adviser Valerie Jarrett and his Senate chief of staff, Pete Rouse.
Putting a White House staff in place is critical. And word that Obama asked Rep. Rahm Emanuel to serve as chief of staff spread quickly among Democrats, though there was no formal announcement.
Emanuel’s taste for bare-knuckle politics is a stark contrast to the next president’s image as a conciliator, but an ability to bang heads can help maintain internal discipline.
In 2006, Emanuel led the Democrats’ House campaign effort that ousted Republicans from power after a dozen years. Colleagues elevated him to the third-ranking leadership slot. His penchant for profanity is legendary, as is his ability to multitask, a skill he put to good use as a political and policy adviser in the Clinton White House
“He is as smart as a fox and tough as nails, and is one of the savviest political minds that I have ever known,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas. “I have no doubt that he is smart enough to adjust to the culture of an Obama operation.”
“Rahm Emanuel stands for everything that Obama was saying is wrong with Washington, but he’s very competent,” said Edwards, a former congressman.
Vice President-elect Joe Biden remained in Chicago on Wednesday, huddling with aides and Obama.
Both men will resign from the Senate at some point in the next two months, opening seats that will be filled by Democratic governors in Delaware and Illinois.
Historically, presidents-elect announce Cabinet picks by Christmas, roughly three weeks before inauguration. Obama is expected to move much more quickly.
Under a post-Sept. 11 reform, the campaigns got to start the security clearance process after securing the nomination – a two-month head start intended to ensure that critical national security posts are filled at the outset of an administration.
And Bush created a transition coordinating council on Oct. 9, six weeks earlier than his predecessor did in 2000.
Congress is expected to return to Washington soon to work on a new economic stimulus package. Obama is likely to let the process play out with little interference, avoiding a needless expenditure of political capital.
The head of the General Services Administration, the federal government’s landlord agency, announced Wednesday it was turning over a 120,000-square-foot transition headquarters to President-elect Obama in downtown Washington.
Other key departments are also geared up for the handoff.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for instance, named a trio of career diplomats six weeks ago to coordinate the transition. And she assigned two dozen more aides on Wednesday to work full time on the task.
The stock market’s 486-point plunge on Wednesday served as a harsh reminder that forces beyond Obama’s control will buffet the country, test his wit, and demand attention from Day 1.
“This president goes into office with more expectations than any president I can ever remember in my lifetime,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in Washington. “President Kennedy told us: ‘to govern is to choose.’ And, so, we have to choose our priorities very carefully.”
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