Crisis leads Obama to pick staff quickly

CHICAGO -- No president-elect in American history has moved as fast to get started as Barack Obama.

No president-elect in modern times has had to.

Monday, Obama is set to announce the leaders of his economic team, nominating as Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve. The president-elect plans to name Larry Summers, a Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, to head the National Economic Council. And Obama is promising to push an expanded economic stimulus package aimed at creating or preserving 2.5 million jobs during the next two years.

"Our hope is that the new Congress begins work on this as soon as they take office in early January, because we don't have time to waste here," David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said on Fox News Sunday, citing the spiraling economic crisis. "We want to hit the ground running on Jan. 20."

Less than three weeks since a historic election night, Obama has filled most of the top jobs on his White House staff and floated the names of potential picks for much of his Cabinet. He is poised to announce his national security team after Thanksgiving. Discussions with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton remain "very much on track" about the job of secretary of State, her spokesman Philippe Reines says.

It is an unprecedented pace and a sign of how the economy's dive is accelerating the traditional transfer of power in Washington. Since World War II, only presidents Dwight Eisenhower and the elder George Bush made any Cabinet announcements before December.

"There's certainly a tremendous pressure to name the team and thereby instill some confidence in the markets," says Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute and former head of the Congressional Budget Office. "There's an effort to calm jittery nerves and show that this is not going to be Amateur Hour on Jan. 20."

It is a fast start onto foggy terrain. Obama is in the awkward position of being elected but not yet in charge, watching an economy lurch without having the authority to shape the Bush administration's policies being implemented to bolster it.

Not since 1932 has a new president waited to take over amid a time of such serious crisis.

The interregnum has created its own dangers as the stock markets, business leaders and consumers look for leadership in perilous times.

"This crisis is so deep that the markets would like to hear from Obama about what he has in mind," says Greg Valliere, political strategist with the Stanford Financial Group. "The Congress looks dysfunctional and the Bush administration is out of gas."

'Aggressive leadership'

The incoming administration is sending signals about what economic policies the new president will propose and what officials he will choose to pursue them:

• On Friday, Geithner's appointment was reported. The Dow, which had suffered three days of staggering losses, staged a 500-point rally on the news.

• On Saturday, Obama announced he was directing aides to draw up a package of spending proposals and tax cuts that is likely to exceed the $175 billion stimulus plan he discussed during the campaign.

• On Sunday, William Daley, a top Obama adviser, indicated the president-elect "more likely than not" will shelve a campaign promise to repeal Bush tax cuts for households making more than $250,000 a year. Instead, he will simply wait for the tax cuts to expire as scheduled in 2011. All the focus at the moment is on spurring the economy, not balancing the budget.

Obama also is prepared to support federal help for the Detroit automakers who came to Capitol Hill last week seeking a $25 billion bailout, but aides said they first must come up with blueprints to change their companies.

"These guys flew on private jets to Washington, and it seemed like it was the first they heard of, 'What is your plan to restructure your companies?' " Austan Goolsbee, a senior Obama economic adviser, said on CBS' Face the Nation. "That was crazy. If they need a bridge, it's got to be a bridge to somewhere, not a bridge to nowhere."

The president-elect also is signaling what he's not going to do.

On NBC's Meet the Press, James Baker, former secretary of the Treasury and State departments for the first President Bush, urged the incoming president to meet with the outgoing one to forge a joint proposal "to create confidence and eliminate the fear and anxiety that's out there, particularly in the financial markets."

Obama, though, has kept Bush at arm's length, declining to attend the global economic summit Bush hosted this month and repeatedly saying the country has "one president at a time." Bush and Democratic congressional leaders have been unable to agree on an automakers bailout plan or a new stimulus package.

A critic of Bush's stewardship of the economy, Obama promises a fresh start when he takes over in eight weeks.

Daley demurred on a White House get-together.

"I don't think there's a meeting that's going to give the confidence that Jim's talking about," he said, responding to Baker's pitch. With Obama's team unveiled and the new president's "aggressive leadership," he said, "we're going to see some confidence come back."

Rebuffing Herbert Hoover

During the Depression, president-elect Franklin Roosevelt refused outgoing President Herbert Hoover's requests for a meeting to come up with a joint economic program, saying it would tie his hands when he took over.

Then, the interval between the election and the inauguration was longer. FDR wasn't sworn in until March 4. (A constitutional amendment ratified in 1933 moved the inauguration to Jan. 20.)

At a post-election conference at the University of Virginia on Friday, political scientist Larry Sabato suggested that the economic crisis could mean that interval should be shortened.

"Some states swear in their new governors in early December, a month after the election, and parliamentary democracies produce new prime ministers within a day or two of the election," said Sabato, who heads the university's Center for Politics. "The shorter the transition period, the less uncertainty for the markets, the nation and the entire world."

The situation now: "The old president has the powers, the new president the expectations," he said. "That can be confusing and even dangerous."

Others on the panel — including a former secretary of State and three members of Congress — said an earlier inauguration wasn't feasible. "You don't know how hard it is" to get appointments in place to take over even as early as mid-January, said Lawrence Eagleburger, who was the outgoing secretary of State as Bill Clinton's team moved in office.

Even now, Obama didn't take the post-election vacation that was once considered customary. Most days, he has been working out of the public eye at transition headquarters in Chicago. Last Monday, he spoke briefly with reporters before meeting with his election rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain. On Friday, he visited Manny's Deli & Cafeteria on Chicago's South Loop.

A reporter asked his thoughts on bailing out the beleaguered auto industry.

"I got the corned beef," Obama replied.

He presumably will be more forthcoming at today's news conference, scheduled for noon ET. Axelrod confirmed Sunday that Obama would name Geithner and Summers, though he said reports that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would be named at the same time to head the Commerce Department weren't accurate.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has been asked to head Homeland Security and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle has agreed to lead the Health and Human Services Department, according to two Democratic sources with direct knowledge of Obama's transition decisions who were not authorized to speak publicly. Former deputy attorney general Eric Holder is Obama's choice to lead the Justice Department and Obama may ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on the job, the Associated Press says, quoting unnamed Democratic sources also not authorized to speak publicly.

The emerging Cabinet is heavy on experience and personal clout, and have records that display more pragmatism than ideology. Obama is tapping even his Democratic primary rivals — among them, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, Clinton and Richardson.

"These people haven't depended in the past on Obama for favors or moves up the ladder," says James Pfiffner, a political scientist at George Mason University and author of The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running. That means they presumably will feel free to speak their minds, even when they disagree with the boss.

That can be an advantage in a policy debate, although it also poses some risks for a president.

How long a honeymoon?

The economic crisis has affected not only the speed with which Obama has moved but also the people he has chosen. The leaders of the economic team, the prospective attorney general and secretary of State and even the new White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, all are veterans of the Clinton administration.

That has prompted some dismay and unease on left-leaning websites such as, who note Obama ran on a platform of bringing "change" to Washington. Blogger Chris Bowers, for one, calls the lack of "progressives" on the Obama team "extremely disappointing."

Reischauer, on the other hand, calls it "comforting, in the sense that this is the pool of individuals that has substantial experience" who can help get policies implemented and legislation enacted in short order. The new president won't have much time to show progress, he cautions.

"On Jan. 21st, everybody might say, 'Oh, he inherited a mess.' Nonetheless, it will be viewed as his mess to deal with and if things don't turn around, the criticism will begin."

Page reported from Charlottesville, Va., and Washington, D.C. Jackson reported from Chicago.