Thursday, November 27, 2008

TRANSITIONS | Lessons for Obama

Nov. 27, 2008–I was dipping back into a book by Carl M. Brauer, Presidential Transitions: Eisenhower through Reagan (Oxford University Press, 1986) and found much information that might be useful to the Obama transition. The last chapter, "Conclusions: Historical Patterns and Lessons," concentrates all the book's earlier stories and comparisons into a dense guide for any transition staff that has time to look up from the resumes they are reviewing.

Here's one rule Brauer gleans from all of the transitions his book covers:
Relations between outgoing and incoming Presidential administrations have usually been civil... but rarely productive or educational (p. 258).
A common experience is for outgoing staff to prepare themselves for a debriefing, never to be asked for it. I know that in New York City many a briefing book for the next administration has been unopened.

Instead of gleaning as much information as possible from the outgoing administration at every level, incoming Presidents
frequently overreact to a perceived flaw in their predecessor. In reaction to Truman, Eisenhower was too anti-political. In reaction to Eisenhower, Kennedy was too anti-organizational. In reaction to Nixon, Carter was too "anti-imperial." In reaction to Carter, Reagan was too ideological.
Nixon did not overreact in this way, but he did not foresee, says Brauer, how Johnson's war in Vietnam would become his war. This illustrates a general point that
new Presidents and those around them, buoyed by their recent electoral victory, tend to believe that bad things cannot happen to them. But bad things do happen. Some Presidents are reelected, but all Presidents leave office with significant amounts of scar tissue... [A]ll Presidents have made decisions at the start of their administrations that they later regarded as serious mistakes or should have so regarded (p. 258).
Brauer believes that Presidents need to damp down "excessive optimism" and too much faith in the potential from "organizational reform".