January 16, 2009 at 7:32 am

Obama gets high marks for transition

His cabinet choices, outreach to GOP are cited by political experts.

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's administration, which comes to power on Tuesday, has won high marks for its political and management know-how -- skills Obama and his team will need to tame the economic crisis and two foreign wars.

From a "no drama" presidential campaign admired by political pros of both parties to a transition widely seen as among the smoothest in history, experts on the presidency see signs of a well-run executive branch.

The evidence, they say, points to a White House and cabinet stingy with juicy media gossip but open to ideas from opponents and supporters. It begins with an enormous stock of public support that could be mobilized quickly to push Obama's goals.

Of course, such praise can be fleeting. David Abshire, head of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, remembers an e-mail in December 2001 from the late Richard Neustadt, a political scientist considered among the top experts on presidential power.

"He said, 'This is the most talented cabinet ever. It's amazing,' " Abshire recalls. With reliable hands such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush's team drew lots of compliments. Now, many historians consider Bush among the weakest chief executives ever, an opinion shared by a large portion of the public.

Despite those cautions, Abshire -- a former White House aide and ambassador to NATO under Ronald Reagan -- is so impressed by the president-elect that he brings up a comparison even Obama seems to shy from.

"Obama is much like Lincoln," said Abshire, whose center is a repository of documents and research on executive leadership and prepared extensive briefing materials for Obama's transition team. He compares Obama's choice of a centrist economic team to manage the current crisis to Lincoln's own moves to the center on the crisis of his day, slavery. "He listens, and he doesn't feel diminished by it," Abshire said.

He pointed to Obama's outreach to Republicans on his economic stimulus plan, which includes a substantial tax-cut package designed to attract GOP votes in the Congress. House Republicans have invited Obama to meet with them shortly after the inauguration, and this week, Obama met for dinner with influential conservative columnists, including George Will, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks and William Kristol.

That outreach has drawn compliments from Republicans, such as Michigan's Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland. Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel consulted him on top intelligence appointments -- outreach that prompted Hoesktra to back the appointment of Leon Panetta as CIA chief when even some Democrats objected.

"I didn't want Obama coming back to me saying, 'Hoekstra's always playing partisan politics,' " Hoekstra said. "I saw an opportunity to build a bridge where they let me provide input."

By contrast, Bush often clashed with members of Congress -- even those of his own party -- and has been criticized for failing to take opposing views into account. Even this week, at his final news conference, Bush defended his approach: "Presidents can try to avoid hard decisions and therefore avoid controversy," he said. "That's just not my nature."

Few decisions questioned

Ross K. Baker, a politics and elections expert at Rutgers University cites another Obama strength: the unusually smooth and well-managed presidential campaign Obama ran for nearly two years.

"It certainly predicts a well-organized administration, though clearly campaigning and governing are different," Baker said. Obama, Baker said, is "highly intelligent. He seems to have a good way of handling personnel. I think he's not disposed toward great outbursts, which is a good quality in a manager."

And while Baker and many other analysts have generally praised Obama's staff choices, he said the Obama team almost certainly contains an unwelcome surprise or two.

"Statistically it's almost inevitable," he said. It's a large group, including some Obama loyalists but also many newcomers. "There will be people who serve him surpassingly well, and some who just don't fit."

Already, personnel choices have caused the few hiccups of the transition. First there was Panetta, whose appointment leaked to the media before Obama had informed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chairwoman of the Senate intelligence panel.

More serious, perhaps, is the case of Timothy Geithner, Obama's Treasury nominee, who failed to pay some payroll taxes while working for the International Monetary Fund and briefly employed a household worker whose work permit had expired. Republicans have delayed Geithner's confirmation hearing over the issue until after the swearing in, but Obama defended the nomination, and several Democrats and some Republicans have said it should not derail the choice.

Most have favorable opinion

One reason Obama has gotten significant deference, even when he bobbles, is that Washington is fully aware of his popularity. Nearly three-quarters of Americans have a favorable opinion of the president-elect, according to a Gallup poll. Less visible to the public, but more closely watched by political pros, is the enormous network of grassroots supporters built by the Obama campaign.

"They've taken exactly the same approach they had during the campaign to using the Internet," said David All, a Republican political consultant who specializes in the use of the Web and other new media.

"I would never sign up for a White House weekly bulletin or whatever," All said. "But I will make sure I get every single e-mail their team sends out, and millions of Americans fall into that category."

Just as that ability to communicate and mobilize supporters helped Obama win office, it can pressure members of Congress to sign on to the administration's policy goals.

It's a governing tool so powerful, All said, that Republicans have to take notice and respond.

"We cannot be the party of no, the party of obstruction," All said. "It would be a big mistake not to understand that Barack Obama listens to people. ... Republicans have to be part of that conversation."

You can reach Gordon Trowbridge at (202) 662-8738 or gtrowbridge@detnews.com">gtrowbridge@detnews.com.