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Ghosts of Transitions Past

12/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President-elect Obama appointed old hands to his top economic posts, explaining Wednesday that "the vision for change comes... from me."

That's a way to deal with a central problem of transitions - how to achieve change while ensuring that needed turnover of senior staff doesn't dysfunctionalize agency administration.

Transitions have dysfunctional tendencies. An expert on this is Carl M. Brauer, whose Presidential Transitions: Eisenhower through Reagan (Oxford University Press) highlights the dangers that should concern Obama's transition staff, assuming they have time for anything but ranking resumes. Here are Brauer's five worries:

1. Transitions don't learn enough from the previous administration. Relations between outgoing and incoming Presidential administrations may be civil but are "rarely productive or educational." I know that in New York City many a briefing book for the next administration has been unopened.

2. Incoming Presidents "frequently overreact." They devote too much attention to fixing problems that flow from a "perceived flaw in their predecessor." So, says Brauer,

In reaction to Truman, Eisenhower was too anti-political. In reaction to Eisenhower, Kennedy was too anti-organizational. In reaction to Nixon, Carter was too "anti-imperial." In reaction to Carter, Reagan was too ideological.

Nixon did not overreact in this way, but he did not foresee, says Brauer, how Johnson's war in Vietnam would become his war.

3. New Presidents and their staffs are overconfident. Flush with victory, they discount the idea that bad things could happen to them.

But bad things do happen. Some Presidents are reelected, but all Presidents leave office with significant amounts of scar tissue... [A]ll Presidents have made decisions at the start of their administrations that they later regarded as serious mistakes or should have so regarded [p. 258].

So Presidents therefore need to damp down "excessive optimism" and too much faith in the potential from "organizational reform," says Brauer.

4. Transitions bite off more than they can chew. Saul Alinsky pushed for a "quick victory" to keep supporters motivated. A quick victory is built around an achievable goal. Brauer notes that a couple of early "embarrassing setbacks" by Carter tended to breed further failures. Not in the book, but a more recent example: Speaking for the Clinton administration, Ira Magaziner expressed the hope that a comprehensive health care reform law could be passed within six months. It was too much to ask of that Congress. But Bush 43 got a prescription bill through.

5. Finally, all Presidents make serious mistakes. It's the nature of the hardest job on earth. The question is how they respond:

Kennedy posed the right response after the Bay of Pigs when he asked: "How could I have been so stupid?" [p. 268]