The word “transition” brings to mind my favorite television show, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” You know the story: In West Philadelphia, Will was born and raised, on the playground was where he spent most of his days. Before long – looking at his kingdom, he was finally there, to sit on his throne as the prince of Bel Air. So goes the theme song.
For political types, the word “transition” conjures images of moving crews at the White House, ex-congressmen emptying their desks, cabinet nominees answering questions about their taxes and President Obama removing President Bush’s pop-up book collection and Big Mouth Billy Bass toy from the Oval Office.
On Feb. 13, speakers ranging from politicians to reporters gathered for a two-day conference at the National Press Club in D.C. to discuss their takes on the meaning of “transition.”
These days, the word has a broad scope. Many speakers at Transition 2009 emphasized that our country is on a precipice: Behind us lay the failed policies and economic blunders of the last eight years, and before us – a great unknown. Congress, the presidency and the economy are in the process of being resculpted, reassessed and redefined. The success or failure of these three transitions will no doubt have a lasting impact.
The first order of business at the conference involved the transition in Congress. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (LAW ’66, D-Md.) joined the ranks of those calling for a new bipartisan age in the House and Senate.
“Bipartisanship,” Hoyer said, “is not dead, but on life support.” Despite Obama’s best efforts to extend an olive branch House Republicans have thus far been uncooperative, Hoyer said. He pointed to their unanimous rejection of the president’s economic stimulus package – reminiscent, he said, of their reaction to Bill Clinton’s Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act in 1993. (House Republicans unanimously rejected this plan, which later seemed to contribute to a period of economic prosperity.)
Hoyer argued that many House Republicans, at the urging of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), made up their minds to reject the bill before they’d even seen it. He quoted Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) who said, “Some of my colleagues seem determined to oppose the stimulus bill almost no matter what is done.”
Hoyer recalled the days of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who gleefully viewed the Democratic majority’s failings as a political success for Republicans. America needs to transition out of such petty partisan politics, Hoyer argued, by “tak[ing] votes in a spirit of making the best possible policy, not defining ourselves ideologically.”
The second major governmental transition involves the Fresh Prince himself, President Obama. Obama-Biden Transition Project Co-chair John Podesta (LAW ’76) and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card congratulated themselves on one of the smoothest and most successful presidential transitions in history (minus Cabinet dropouts Bill Richardson, Tom Daschle, Nancy Killefer and Judd Gregg).
Their words suggest that the presidential decision-making style is in transition. According to Card, President Bush would make a decision by reading detailed memos, consulting with advisers, sleeping on it (I imagine this was the longest step of the process) and praying.
Next, Podesta described President Obama’s style. Obama comes well prepared to every meeting, insists on hearing from everyone in the room and closes meetings with a summary and his conclusions. They call him “No-Drama Obama” in part because he has no tolerance for staff members who take their grudges and gossip to the newspapers (think terrorism advisor Richard Clarke or former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan). He demands honor and loyalty from his staff.
Podesta praised Obama for hitting the ground running – ordering the closure of GuantÃ¡namo Bay, reorganizing interrogation techniques, taking an active role in energy policy and signing into law the stimulus package – the largest single spending proposal in U.S. history.
Another major transition is taking place in the economic sphere. Ronald Rosenfeld, former chief regulator of the Federal Home Loan Bank, argued that our government urgently needs to jumpstart demand for housing. Families, Rosenfeld said, connect their financial well-being with the value of their homes. With housing prices falling, homeowners are less likely to do what Americans once did best – shop. A change in consumer psychology is needed, Rosenfeld argued.
I will not join the ranks of couch economists who, by watching CNN, profess to have the solution to America’s economic woes. I will only say that with banks foreclosing on homes, jobs disappearing and retirement savings dwindling, the economy is in a major state of transition and our government must tread carefully and quickly.
Naturally, this transition, like any, is a time of fear, uncertainty and high stakes. Workers could lose jobs. Families could lose homes. The elderly could lose Social Security. Students could lose their tuition. It will take a president who is up for the challenge. In reality, Obama is no Fresh Prince – he has no time for chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool or shooting some b-ball outside of the school. The challenges ahead are pressing and great.
But one anecdote, shared by the conference’s keynote speaker George Stephanopoulos, suggests that Obama has embraced the arduous task ahead:
A senior White House aide went into the Oval Office and said to the president, “Man, we got a lot of `blank’ coming at us.” The president smiled, looked up from behind his desk and said, “Yeah, but it sure is interesting.”
Andrew Dubbins is a sophomore in the College. He can be reached at dubbinsthehoya.com. Breaking News appears every other Tuesday.
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