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Anatomy of White House change

Anatomy of White House change

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 9:28 pm
By: AP



AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly 8,000 jobs waiting to be filled. Empty file drawers. Missing computer hard drives. Even furniture piled in the hallways.

Talk about a startup.

The most powerful office in the world has less than three months to come into being, essentially from scratch.

“It is a very weird thing to walk into,” said White House chief of staff Josh Bolten, who helped President Bush build a new government eight years ago. “There are no papers, no books. You have computer equipment but there’s nothing on there. You’ve got a telephone but you just sort of barely know what everybody else’s phone number is.”

Bush’s White House started working nearly a year before Election Day to get the government in shape to be handed off. Aides to President-elect Obama also began planning before the voting, just in case their candidate won. But everything accelerates into overdrive now that the 77-day presidential transition clock has started ticking.

Everything on the daunting transition to-do list will certainly not be checked off by Jan. 20, when President-elect Obama walks through the door of the White House as President Obama. But much must be done, especially naming staff and officials.

Put aside that it’s the first wartime presidential transition in 40 years and that the country is gripped by fierce economic troubles. Consider that only days after taking over the Oval office, Obama must present to Congress his first budget request for the entire government

After 232 years, America can be quite quaint about the transfer of power from one administration to the next. Even when a different party is taking over, there are tried-and-true rituals to be indulged.

There’s the White House meeting between the outgoing and incoming commander in chief, usually accompanied by a parallel confab between their spouses. This time it’s taking place much sooner than is typical, on Monday, less than a week after Election Day.

What White House spokesman Tony Fratto called “a very special meeting in our democracy” brings the new guy to the White House in a way he never has visited before. Obama will be treated to a tour of his new home and office with the eyes of someone about to move in, and with the man holding the secrets known by only the small club of presidents as his guide.

In other words, Obama will get to hear and see the good stuff: maybe the weapons cache hidden in the West Wing or classified communications capabilities or the instructions for summoning a cup of coffee. The president-elect gets to, in that hackneyed cliche of campaigns, actually measure the drapes.

Incidentally, one design item that might draw particular interest is the rug in the Oval Office.

Each new occupant gets to custom-design a new one. Bush frequently cites that duty as a) his first presidential decision and b) one that revealed something he believes central to his personal character and approach to leadership. As he likes to tell it, Bush delegated the rug-picking to his wife with orders to have it reflect optimism, so the cream-colored concoction that covers his floor resembles a sunburst.

Another transfer-of-power tradition is the remarkable chain of events prescribed for Inauguration Day. It could be called Moving Day on steroids.

The night before, the Bush White House staff will leave their offices for the last time, turning in badges and keys. They will be unable to get back into the White House unless for a crisis.

The next day, as soon as Bush leaves the White House to go to the Capitol to watch Obama take the oath, and while Obama rides in the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and sits in the reviewing stands outside his new residence, an army of workers will box up and cart off the Bush-related contents of the building, personal and professional. Obama’s, likewise, are brought in.

And, said Bolten, “a whole new set of people will sort of wander in.” He spoke during an interview on C-SPAN by reporters from The Associated Press and The Washington Post that was taped Friday for broadcast Sunday.

As mandated by federal law, the institutional memory of the place is wiped almost entirely clean. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 requires that all documents leave the White House with the outgoing president, except some in the National Security Council and the counsel’s office.

That’s not to say there aren’t cheat sheets — lots of them — to help the new team.

Bookshelves in the office of White House deputy chief of staff Blake Gottesman are now covered with thick three-inch binders. Four of them, the thickest, spell out in detail the most daunting task of any incoming White House — choosing 7,840 presidential appointees, and shepherding the 1,177 of those that need Senate confirmation through the Capitol Hill process.

Some estimate that 40,000 people will flood the new White House with resumes for those jobs in the first few weeks, and 75,000 in the first few months. A hint of how huge the task is: No administration has had confirmed more than about 25 Cabinet and sub-Cabinet personnel by April 1 or more than about 240 by its eighth month.

An additional dozen or so binders fill a separate long cabinet in Gottesman’s office, coming from each part of the Executive Office of the President, such as the press shop and the congressional liaison group.

In addition, the NSC has prepared extensive briefing materials on every global hot spot imaginable, complete with contingency options for several possible emergency scenarios, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely describe the preparations. Bolten also said that members of Obama’s staff will be invited to attend at least one “tabletop exercise” at the White House, a regular simulation of an emergency such as a terrorist attack or disease outbreak.

Obama’s team started receiving information about key issues even before Election Day. Those briefings — and efforts such as establishing side-by-side workspace for Treasury Department’s $700 billion financial rescue program — now are ramping up more each day.

Bolten said this earlier and more intense transition activity is crucial because of the dire times. The goal is something akin to a relay race, where “we are carrying the baton but the next runner will be running before we actually hand them that baton.”

Bush aides are also under orders to leave the place tidy, and not repeat the acts of minor vandalism that slightly marred the transition from President Clinton to Bush.

“We will vacuum, we will clean our desks, we will take the gum out from under the conference tables,” Bolten joked.

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Published in The Messenger 11.12.08

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