The Imperial Transition

The Imperial Transition

Obama’s transition is the earliest, biggest, fastest, best organized and most efficient on record. But has the media failed to see the larger architecture of this moment, and what it portends for the presidency to come?


AP Images
President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden during a meeting with their economic advisory team on Nov. 7, 2008

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Did you know that the IBM Center for the Business of Government hosts a “Presidential Transition” blog?; that the Council on Foreign Relations has its own “Transition Blog: The New Administration”?; and that the American University School of Communication has a “Transition Tracker” website? The National Journal offers its online readers a comprehensive “Lost in Transition” site to help them “navigate the presidential handover,” including a “short list,” offering not only the president-elect’s key recent appointments but also a series of not-so-short lists of those still believed to be in contention for as-yet-unfilled jobs. Think of all this as Entertainment Weekly married to People Magazine for post-election political junkies.

Newsweek features “powering up” (“blogging the transition”); the policy-wonk website offers Politico 44 (“a living diary of the Obama presidency”); and Public Citizen has “Becoming 44,” with the usual lists of appointees, possible appointees, but–for the junkie who wants everything–“bundler transition team members” and ” lobbyist and bundler appointees” as well. (For those who want to know, for instance, White House social secretary-designate Desiree Roberts bundled at least $200,000 for the Obama campaign.)

The New York Times has gone whole hog at “The New Team” a section of its website where there are scads of little bios of appointees, as well as prospective appointees– including what each individual will “bring to the job,” how each is “linked to Mr. Obama,” and what negatives each carries as “baggage.” Think of it as a scorecard for transition junkies. The Washington Post, whose official beat is, of course, Washington, DC, über alles, has its “44: The Obama Presidency, A Transition to Power,” where, in case you’re planning to make a night of it on January 20, you can keep up to date on that seasonal “must” subject, the upcoming inaugural balls. And not to be outdone, the transitioning Obama transition crew has its own mega-transition site,

Earliest, Biggest, Fastest

And that, of course, only begins to scratch the surface of the media’s transition mania (I haven’t even mentioned the cable news networks) which has followed, with hardly a breath, nearly two years of presidential campaign mania. Let’s face it, whether or not the Obama transition is the talk of Main Street and the underpopulated malls of this American moment, it’s certainly the talk of medialand–and at what can only be termed historic levels, as befits a “historic” transition period.

Believe me, no one’s sparing the adjectives right now. This transition is the earliest, biggest, fastest, best organized, most efficient on record, even as Obama himself has “maintained one of the most public images of any president-elect.” It’s cause for congratulations all around, a powerful antidote, we’re told, to Bill Clinton’s notoriously chaotic transition back in 1992. In fact, we can’t, it seems, get enough of a transition that began to gather steam many months before November 4 and has been plowing ahead for more than a post-election month now.

It’s kind of exhausting, really, just thinking about that awesomely humongous transition lineup. Check out the list of transition review teams and advisers at and you’ll find that it goes over the horizon. According to the Washington Post, 135 transition team members, organized into ten groups, all wearing yellow badges, backed by countless transition advisers, “have swarmed into dozens of government offices, from the Pentagon to the National Council on Disability” preparing the way for the new administration. This, like so much else, has been “unprecedented.”

And don’t get anyone started on the veritable “army “ of volunteer lawyers giving “unprecedented scrutiny” to possible administration appointees in a vetting process that began at the moment of Obama’s nomination, not election. As the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker described it:

Embarrassing e-mails, text messages, diary entries and Facebook profiles? Gifts worth more than $50? Relatives linked to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG or another company getting a federal bailout? Obama is conducting the vetting much as he managed his campaign: methodically, thoroughly and on a prodigious scale.

That process includes a distinctly unprecedented invasion of privacy via a seven-page, sixty-three-question form that all potential appointees have had to fill out. Imagine, for instance, that after sixty-two “penetrating” questions on every aspect of your life, you faced this catch-all sixty-third question: “Please provide any other information, including information about other members of your family, that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the president-elect.” (For anyone worried about privacy issues, what this means practically–as Barton Gelman explained in his book Angler on the vice-presidential vetting process, 200 questions long, by which Dick Cheney chose himself as candidate and then used private information sent in by the other candidates for his own purposes–is major dossiers on about 800 people.)

Everything in this “transition” is, in fact, more prodigious and more invasive than in any previous transition, including, of course, the ongoing media fascination with all those positions Obama is filling with “the best and the brightest.” We’re not just talking about his vast economic team or his national security team, but the presidential liaison to Capitol Hill, the White House press secretary, the president’s speechwriter, his communications director, and his White House staff secretary, not to speak of the First Lady’s deputy chief of staff and, of course, that White House social secretary. And then there’s always that bout of “fantasy football for foodies,” the speculation over who will be the new White House chef.

The Transition Bulks Up

Talk about confident and organized, Peter Baker and Helene Cooper of the New York Times report that Obama invited former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones to meet with him and all but offered him a key national security post “a full thirteen days before the election.” (He clearly felt that he had a pretty good idea of who was going to be president-elect by then.) And the rest of his transition, so efficiently organized by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, has been on a (steam)roll ever since. Post-November 4, it has been rolling out the key appointments at a historically “unprecedented” pace.

Five weeks past victory, according to the Times, Obama had announced thirteen of the twenty-four “most important positions in a new administration,” including Jones as his national security adviser. At the equivalent moment in their transitions, Jimmy Carter had filled two of these positions; Ronald Reagan, also two; George H.W. Bush, eight (but his was largely a carry-over administration); Bill Clinton, one; and George W. Bush (distracted by an electoral battle wending its fateful way toward the Supreme Court), one.

Bated breath hardly catches the media mood, facing the thrilling, almost daily rollouts of new appointments and record numbers of president-elect press conferences against a backdrop of enough American flags to outfit a parade and announced from a White House press-room-style podium carefully–not to say ornately–labeled The Office of the President Elect.” At such moments, the Obama transition can seem anything but transitional.

Given the overwhelming, largely congratulatory focus on specific appointments and their attendant drama–will the strong personalities of Hillary, Bob and Jim clash? Are the Obama-ites in a desperate scramble for a new CIA director? Is Larry Summers next in line to head the Fed?–the larger architecture of this moment, and what it portends for the presidency to come, is ignored.

Think of it this way: After the Imperial Campaign–that two-year extravaganza of bread and circuses (and money)–comes the Imperial Transition. Everything in these last weeks, like the preceding two years, has been bulked up, like Schwarzenegger’s Conanesque pecs. In other words, since November 5, what we’ve been experiencing in the midst of one of the true crisis periods in our history has essentially been an unending celebration of super-sized government. Consider it an introduction to what will surely be the next Imperial Presidency.

As the transition events indicate, whatever its specific policies of change, the administration-to-come is preparing to move, and in force, into an empty executive branch as it already exists. Wherever there’s an opening, that is, Podesta’s guys are rushing to fill it.

The particular transition moment that caught my eye occurred two weeks ago when the chief strategist of the Obama election campaign, David Axelrod, was appointed senior adviser to the president. To be more specific, he was given Karl Rove’s old slot (and, assumedly, office) in the White House. As the Boston Globe’s Peter Canelos wrote:

it’s now obvious that there’s one part of George W. Bush’s political legacy that Obama and Axelrod aren’t eager to change: the very dubious notion of having the president’s campaign strategist rubbing elbows with all the policy wonks in the West Wing.

True, presidents have often wanted trusted advisers near at hand. But the institutionalization of that urge in an actual office in the White House is a new development that Obama could easily, as well as painlessly, have reversed (and many would have cheered him for it). So consider it a signal.

Barack Obama–thank goodness–isn’t George Bush. He doesn’t arrive in office with a crew wedded to a “unitary executive theory” of the presidency, or an urge to loose the executive from the supposed “chains” of the Watergate-era Congress, or to “take off the gloves” globally. He doesn’t have strange, twisted, oppressive ideas about how the Constitution should work, nor assumedly do visions of a “commander-in-chief presidency” (or vice presidency) dance in his head like so many sugar plums.

But don’t ignore the architecture, the deep structure of the American political system. Make no mistake: Obama is moving full speed ahead into an executive mansion rebuilt and endlessly expanded by the national security state over the last half-century-plus, and then built up in major ways by George W.’s “team.” Despite the prospect of a new dog and a mother-in-law in the White House, the president-elect and his transition team show no signs of wanting to change the basic furniture, no less close up a few wings of the imperial mansion (other, perhaps, than the elaborate prison complex at Guantánamo).

With so many catastrophes impending and so many pundits and journalists merrily applauding the most efficient transition in American history, no one, it seems, is even thinking about the architecture.

The GM of Governments

The New York Times’s David Sanger recently reported on what happened when Obama’s mini-transition teams of ex-Clintonistas ventured into the heart of our post-9/11 imperial bureaucracy. Many of the team members had worked in the very same departments in the 1990s. On returning, however, they found themselves to be so many Alices in a labyrinthine new Wonderland of national security. Sanger writes that

several say they feel more like political archaeologists. “The buildings look the same,” one said over coffee, “but everything inside is unrecognizable.” And as they dig, they have tripped across a few surprises…. few can contain their amazement, chiefly at the sheer increase in the size of the defense and national-security apparatus.

“For a bunch of small-government Republicans,” [said] one former denizen of the White House who has now stepped back inside for the first time in eight years, “these guys built a hell of an empire.” Eight years ago, there were two deputy national security advisers; today there are a half-dozen, each with staff.

And don’t think for a second that most, or all, of those half-dozen posts aren’t likely to be filled by the new administration, or that, four or eight years later, we’ll be back to two deputy national security advisers; nor should you imagine that the Homeland Security Department that Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is to run, a vast, lumpy, inefficient, ineffective post-9/11 creation of the Bush administration (which now has its own embedded mini-homeland-industrial complex) will be gone in those same years, any more than that most un-American of words, “homeland”, is likely to leave our lexicon; nor will Barack Obama not appoint a Director of National Intelligence, another of those post-9/11 creations that added yet one more layer of bureaucracy to the eighteen departments, agencies and offices that make up the official US Intelligence Community.

Don’t hold your breath for that highly convoluted mess to be reduced to a more logical two or three intelligence agencies; nor will that 2002 creation of the Bush administration, the US Northern Command, another militarization of “the homeland” now in the process of bulking up, be significantly downsized or abolished in the coming years.

On all of this, the Bush administration has gone out of its way to lend a hand to Obama’s transition team and, in the process, help institutionalize the imperial transition itself. Like the new money arrangements pioneered in the 2008 elections, it surely will remain part of the political landscape for the foreseeable future. From such developments in our world, it seems, there’s never any turning back.

There’s nothing strange about all this, of course, if you’re already inside this system. It seems, in fact, too obvious to mention. After all, what president wouldn’t move into the political/governmental house he’s inheriting as efficiently and fully as possible?

The unprecedented size of this imperial pre-presidency, however, signals something else: that what is to come–quite aside from the specific policies adopted by a future Obama administration–will be yet another imperial presidency. (And, by the way, those who expect Congress to suddenly become the player it hasn’t been, wielding power long ceded, are as likely to be disappointed as those who expect a Hillary Clinton State Department renaissance under the budgetary shadow of the Pentagon.)

On January 20, Barack Obama will be more prepared than any president in recent history to move in, and as everyone now likes to write, “hit the ground running.” But that ground–the bloated executive and the vast national security apparatus that goes with it (as well as the US military garrisons that dot the planet), all further engorged by George W., Dick and pals–is anything but fertile when it comes to “change.”

Maybe if the imperial presidency and the national security state worked, none of this would matter. But how can they, given the superlatives that apply to them? They’re oversized, overmuscled, overweight, overly expensive, overly powerful and overly intrusive.

Bottom line: they are problem-creators, not problem-solvers. To expect one genuine “decider,” moving in at the top, to put them on a diet-and-exercise regimen is asking a lot. After all, at the end of the George Bush era, what we have is the GM of governments, and when things start to go wrong, who’s going to bail it out?

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