The Transition to Governing: Reversing a Perfect Storm

Sen. Barack Obama, as president-elect, now faces the daunting task of staging a transition from campaign to governing, and from the Bush years to the Obama years, in what must be the most artful and adroit performance of the task seen in decades. Facing two wars, looming multifaceted economic crisis, and the need to overhaul national energy policy and fight environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale, Obama is faced not just with forming a cabinet and White House team, but formulating a strategy for enacting the change he has promised in a time of historic difficulty.

Reversing a perfect storm of crisis, deficit and discontent is the tall task that from day one threatens to distract Sen. Obama from his ambitious policy proposals to effect change across the board and restore institutional efficiency and fairness in American government. He will have to fashion solutions for a time of economic upheaval, real security problems relating to at least two wars, a policy approach to what appear to be Chinese and Russian expansionist ambitions, and do so within the context of his own policy proposals and campaign promises.

On the first day after his election, President-elect Obama received a stark —albeit not personal— warning from the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, that Russia would redeploy its military to counter an American-built battery of defensive long-range missiles in central Europe. On the second day, the IMF warned it expects all advanced industrial economies to contract in 2009, except Canada, posing what may be a yet more severe economic challenge than was expected by either candidate, even given the heated rhetoric of the campaign.

Reversing the Credit Freeze

The $700 billion financial rescue package passed by Congress and signed into law by Pres. Bush has already begun to be implemented, with $250 billion in assistance going to the 9 largest banks in the US, in exchange for the Treasury Dept. taking a percentage stake in the ownership and direction of the firms. The next Treasury secretary will oversee one of the most far-reaching economic spending projects the US government has ever undertaken, and will be in many ways more powerful than any government official to date, in terms of potential direct effect on economic trends.

President-elect Obama has professed from the start that this bailout must be orchestrated in such a way that it protects “Main Street” interests, earns the taxpayer a return on investment —so it does not ultimately amount to additional spending—, and promises to freeze all foreclosures for at least 90 days. Implementing this strategy will have to happen quickly, but the consequences could be severe if mishandled.

An effective handling of the situation, however, could permit the application of fiscal policies in line with a new economics of generative investment, distinct from supply-side, but also distinct from simple social spending. With a national organization of engineers projecting a need to spend at least $1.6 trillion just to upgrade infrastructure to current standards, the public works environment will necessarily fit into any new fiscal policy developed by a Pres. Obama.

Reversing the Iraq Security Slide

The most recent installment of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) describes security gains in Iraq as tenuous and warns that across the nation, violence is potentially ready to reach new levels. There is uncertainty about whether the presence of American troops is reducing or inflaming tensions still, and concern the security gains that have stemmed from the “Anbar Awakening” might be lost if Shi’a militia in the south launch a bid for power in Basra or push for broader influence in Baghdad.

While much was made of “the Surge” or “the surge strategy” by Republican candidate John McCain, the troop surge was in fact a military tactic, designed to “stop the bleeding” in an increasingly desperate security environment. Added troops (the Surge), together with Gen. Petraeus’ community-building plans and capitalizing on the Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni leaders turned against the insurgency, produced meaningful improvements in terms of number of violent incidents, but some of those gains are now said to be sliding, as overall quality of life and economic conditions have not followed.

Reversing the Taliban’s 2nd Rise

Failure to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden has led to Al Qaeda and Taliban militants taking root in remote areas of Pakistan’s border territory, according to American intelligence agencies and NATO forces in the region, where they may be reconstituting their command structure and planning a broader war. High numbers of civilian casualties in recent air raids have provoked hostility toward NATO forces among the population, and sympathy for the Taliban as a potential nationalist movement.

A Pres. Obama will need to redirect US involvement in the region to choke the communicative and physical resources of the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in hiding, hold warlords in firm opposition to those groups and involve the population in concrete advances toward better civil services, democratic processes and national and local security. New efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan will have to be based on a zero-civilian-casualties approach to military action. They will have to eschew information-gathering processes where money is paid to informants who may have tribal, factional or even neighborly grudges against those they turn in (this method has been blamed by American officials for multiple cases in which weddings were bombed, with some officials speculating it could be an attempt by Taliban supporters to build anger against US and NATO forces.

A resurgent Taliban could again turn Afghanistan into a failed state, even without taking power, potentially forcing the Kabul government into de facto exile, by limiting the scope of their domain to Kabul itself, which has suffered bombings and ambushes in increasing numbers. President-elect Obama has vowed to pursue and defeat both the Taliban and Bin Laden and his top commanders.

Reversing Global Warming Threats

The work of governing during a time of potentially radical economic transition, from a 19th-century model of combustion industry to a 21st century model of 100% emissions-free energy production is about reversing the threats to global climate stability, not reversing the warming trends themselves. The goal is to reduce the long-term warming effect that may result from excessive industrial and transport-linked carbon emissions.

Warming trends will continue, and the consequences may be severe, even if we achieve maximum reductions in carbon emissions. Obama’s approach to combatting the environmental and security threats posed by global climate change will have to speed the transition to a 100% clean-energy economy, while preparing policy and military and economic assistance abroad to help do the same, and to face the potential mass destabilization or migration stemming from desertification of some regions, water shortages and agricultural collapse.

Reversing the Underinsurance Crisis

There are nearly 50 million American citizens with no private-sector healthcare coverage and no registered government healthcare assistance. There may be another 25 million who are “underinsured”, meaning their coverage does not extend to all the areas where they need assistance. With fully one-quarter of the population lacking sufficient health insurance coverage, costs are soaring and the fallout from inadequate care—untimely deaths and worsening chronic conditions—, failure to resolve this issue in coming years will mean a significant ongoing drain on our nation’s economic resources and a threat to our general quality of life.

President-elect Obama has promised to push for legislation that would help the private sector deliver complete health coverage, at affordable prices, to all Americans. The Obama plan is not socialized healthcare, and it is not a government-run system. It will make requirements of the private sector that are not currently in place, and will use tax incentives and competitive pricing models to reduce the cost of drugs and to maximize the amount of total insurance coverage provided for low premium payments, as well as requiring that all pre-existing conditions be covered.

Reversing Policy Disorder (Staff)

Pres. Bush’s tenure has been marked by periodic waves of defections and resignations, protests over policy positions and political tactics. He has left President-elect Obama with the above-mentioned list of untended calamities, and Obama’s transition team and inaugural staff will have to hit the ground running, ready to implement serious programs of reform on each of these points. “No drama Obama” has emerged as a common reference by campaign staffers for their candidate; he is thought to be seeking a team of serious policy experts and public servants with a history of working on the issues they will be tapped to address.

Obama’s first top White House aide was reported early on the first day after the election victory: an offer of the post of White House chief of staff to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL). Emanuel mulled the decision, and reports suggested he might turn it down to continue his career in the House, or to avoid uprooting his family, but this afternoon he accepted. By all accounts, the pick continues Obama’s demonstration of keen judgment and an eye toward efficacy. While some Republicans attacked, saying Emanuel is a vicious partisan, other Republicans said he handed them tough defeats in 2006 and 2008, organizing the House Democratic electoral effort, but is a policy powerhouse, a relentless organizer for legislative votes and has friends “across the aisle”.

The choice gives President-elect Obama the same determined, level-headed gravitas with which he campaigned, as a hallmark of his White House staff. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has been talked about as a potential candidate for head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He is one of the nation’s leading legal advocates for action to protect the environment and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. His work for clean air standards, ecosystem-resilience, and environmental advocacy broadly, makes him a sensible choice: a no-nonsense field expert, ready to tackle the major legal issues related to environmental protection from the first day.

There is talk Obama would ask Defense Sec. Gates to stay on, at least for a time of transition, while he works to craft the next phase of natural security policy. Gates may be asked to oversee a process of long-term Iraq-deployed troop reduction, with Gen. Petraeus, as head of Central Command, overseeing the transition from focus on Iraq to focus on Afghanistan and eliminating the Al Qaeda command structure and ground operations in the region.

Reversing Putin’s March to a New Cold War

Russian prime minister—formerly two-term president—Vladimir Putin has been for nearly a decade working to build Russia’s strength as an international economic and security power. Much of his success in this area is related to the steep increase in global demand for crude oil and the corresponding jump in prices.

Russian petroleum and natural gas reserves have been the fundamental building block for all of Vladimir Putin’s new expansionist policies. His successor, Pres. Medvedev, delivered a 90-minute state of the nation address the day after Sen. Obama was elected president of the United States, and he vowed to take a number of aggressive military postures to counter an American missile defense shield in Europe. The threat amounts to the most direct comment on the potential for an attempt to return to the bipolar Cold-War-era world, raising significantly the security stakes of America’s relationship with Russia.

President-elect Obama will have to demonstrate almost immediately his ability to fulfill the promise of an “aggressive diplomacy”, rooted in the strength of America’s military and economic power, but manifest in a genuine effort to engage in dialogue and collaborative problem-solving with foreign powers. Russia poses the most complicated negotiation, and starting on 20 January 2009, Pres. Obama will have to privilege the vision of a cool cooperation with the Putin-Medvedev power bloc, to craft a viable diplomatic bond and avoid a new cold war.

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Originally published November 6, 2008, at

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