This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
By John Harwood As President-elect Barack Obama rushes from secret job interviews with onetime rivals in the Democratic primary season to briefings on the financial crisis, to discussions of saving the American auto industry, the postelection period may feel frenetic. But soon he and his transition team may look back on this phase as luxuriantly languid, a fleeting chance for "deliberate haste," as Obama has characterized the pace of his cabinet selection process. Later it will be all haste. This fall his running mate, Joseph Biden Jr., warned that the incoming president would be tested within six months by an international crisis. But history shows the rush of trouble does not wait for months, or sometimes even hours. Time for a Message Day 1 largely permits new presidents to set the tone of their choosing. That was when Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself;" John F. Kennedy exhorted Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you;" and Ronald Reagan declared "government is not the solution to our problem." Immediately upon taking office, Jimmy Carter heartened part of the country by pardoning Vietnam draft resisters. Reagan basked in an external event that heartened the entire country when Iran released American hostages. But Bill Clinton fought controversy even before his inauguration. In a mid-January confirmation hearing for Donna Shalala, his nominee for health and human services secretary, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, ripped the president-elect as giving welfare reform a lower priority than health care, a decision Clinton would come to regret because of its political consequences. On Clinton's first full day in office, his secretary of defense, Les Aspin, was excoriated by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the new president's effort to fulfill his campaign pledge to permit gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. On his second full day, he accepted the withdrawal of his choice for attorney general, Zoë Baird, over revelations that she had employed an illegal immigrant. Those first-inning dramas played out publicly. Behind closed doors, other presidents faced early tests that shadowed their tenures. Within a month of being sworn in for his only full term, Lyndon Johnson complained privately about a speech on Vietnam by his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey. In turn, Humphrey worried that Johnson was marginalizing him. Within two months, Richard Nixon had begun the secret bombing of Cambodia. Just as quickly, Carter soured his relations with a Democrat-controlled Congress by taking aim at water projects cherished by senior figures in his own party. Within three months of inauguration, Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt. Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. President George W. Bush faced a
showdown with Beijing over a collision between an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. Within four months, Clinton faced a new furor over the firing of officials in the White House travel office. Within five months, Bush saw the Senate slip from Republican control when Senator James Jeffords of Vermont switched to become an independent. And within eight months, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks thrust Bush's presidency in directions he never anticipated while seeking office. Long List of Problems The list of known problems facing Obama at least matches that of any predecessor since Roosevelt. While conditions have improved in an Iraq war he promises to end, they have deteriorated in the war in Afghanistan that he promises to step up. Consumer spending is falling, unemployment is rising, and American auto companies say they may not have enough cash to stay afloat until Obama's inauguration. The Group of 20 industrial and developing nations, which in the absence of the new American leader left important regulatory questions unresolved this past weekend in Washington, plans another session for April 2009, after Obama has assumed power. The lame-duck Congress returns to Washington on Monday to pursue the Democrats' dwindling hopes for new economic stimulus and aid for Detroit. But Obama, having resigned his Senate seat, plans to remain in Chicago. Aides say the president-elect might name a secretary of state or Treasury this week. But probably not, since they believe he still has time to think things through.