Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Gets Down To Work

After the victory, the transition. There are plenty of baffling things about the way Americans elect their presidents, but probably the most bizarre to those of us used to seeing removal vans turn up round the back of Downing Street before dawn after election night, is the period of two and a half months before they're actually allowed to take office. Tuesday night may have been Barack Obama's finest hour, but he's not going to be able to actually do any governing for nearly seven weeks.

(As a sidebar, the reason for all this delay is linked to the way the founders of the US structured the system. The number of 'electoral college votes' assigned to each state on election night, translates to an actual person, an elector. All the electors from around the country meet and formally cast their votes on behalf of their state. In the old days it took a while for everyone to get together, hence the delay before the new president is inaugurated. It seems nobody's bothered enough about this odd way of doing things to get round to changing it.)

But at least it gives Mr Obama plenty of time to assemble the team he'll take with him into the White House. And he's made a quick start - his chief of staff will be Rahm Emanuel. He's a former senior staff member during the Clinton years, and has recently been serving as a congressman. You might know him a lot better through the TV character based on him, Josh Lyman of the West Wing. This appointment suggests Mr Obama has made two decisions about the kind of administration he wants to lead.

First - he recognises his own inexperience, and wants to surround himself with people who know all about the dark arts of getting laws passed on Capitol Hill (the last two Democratic presidents, Carter and Clinton, both struggled in the early days of their presidencies, partly because of a lack of Washington knowhow in both themselves and their top advisors). Second - although he's spoken of the need to involve Republicans in his administration and strike a bipartisan stance, and he may well do so up to a point (Robert Gates looks likely to be asked to stay on as Secretary of Defence, for example), he's also going to have some really partisan, no-nonsense Democrats right at the top of his team.

This is all very sensible. President Obama will hope that Mr Emanuel can effectively do his dirty work for him, when it comes to the grubby business of actually achieving the change he's so often referred to. There's an old saying that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. He may have been more poetic than most, but Mr Obama won't be any different.

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