President-elect Obama is Building His Administration With 'Deliberate Haste'

Americans have high expectations for Obama as president.


Robert Gibbs, Obama's chief spokesman, who is expected to be named soon as White House press secretary, says Obama won't be rushed into making his appointments. His guiding standard is pragmatic rather than ideological as he seeks advisers who will put the middle class first and have "a philosophy of getting things done." Gibbs argues that Obama himself is the change agent, and he will make sure subordinates take new approaches no matter what their backgrounds are. Gibbs compares Obama to a new quarterback on a football team of veterans. "The guy calling the plays" makes the difference, Gibbs says.

And while Obama will focus relentlessly on helping the middle class and strengthening the economy, he doesn't want Americans to think he can work miracles. Gibbs says the 100-day framework often used to evaluate a new president's achievements—which started with Franklin Roosevelt's hyperactive first three months in 1933—may be outmoded because today's problems are so numerous and complex. Gibbs says 100 days is an "arbitrary time period" that probably doesn't apply anymore.

Obama aides are still talking about a wide-ranging agenda—starting with a "rescue" package for the economy that includes a middle-class tax cut. His blueprint for action also includes initiatives to expand health insurance, encourage energy independence, improve education, and fight global warming, and a variety of executive orders rolling back Bush administration policies, including a reversal of limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He also plans, aides say, to reverse the Bush administration's refusal to give California the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles in an effort to curb global warming and increase fuel efficiency. And in foreign policy, there are Obama's twin goals of removing U.S. forces from Iraq and beefing up American military strength in Afghanistan, which the president-elect considers the real central front in the war on terrorism.

Republican veterans of past administrations say Obama's inexperience as a manager could get him into trouble if he piles too many items on his start-up agenda. "The system can't take that much," says a prominent GOP strategist with close ties to the Bush White House, and Congress and the White House could easily get overloaded. The strategist says what Obama should do is concentrate first and foremost on the economy and leave the other issues for later.

Reaching out. But it is his appointments that have made the most news so far. Republicans, for example, remain wary that he is assembling a left-wing team and that he will govern as a liberal ideologue. The choice of Emanuel as chief of staff set off alarms within the GOP because of his record as a fierce partisan. Democrats familiar with Obama and Emanuel say that he has mellowed since his time in the White House and realizes that his new role will require more conciliation. Obama has shown a willingness to reach out to adversaries, taking a leaf from Abraham Lincoln, who brought prominent critics into his White House inner circle after he took office in 1861. This approach is described in historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which Obama has read and says he admires. Beyond this, Obama says he has spent "a lot of time" reading Lincoln's writings since his election because "there is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."

To further his outreach, he has met with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated in the Democratic presidential primaries, and talked to her about possibly serving as his secretary of state. And on November 17, he met with unsuccessful Republican nominee John McCain at Obama's Chicago transition headquarters to discuss how they could work together. This kind of outreach is what many voters say they want from the new president, according to the polls. Obama also urged Senate Democrats not to hold grudges and to allow Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an "independent Democrat," to continue as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee even though Lieberman endorsed and campaigned for McCain in the election. The Senate Democrats went along with the president-elect's wishes in an unusual gesture of conciliation that bodes well for Obama's relationship with his Capitol Hill colleagues.