A new executive branch has begun to take shape in Washington, as transition teams from President-elect Barack Obama's staff are arriving at all of the government agencies. Their task is to identify the top issues facing the agencies — and what Obama's top priorities ought to be when he takes office on Jan. 20.
Many people who've been through presidential transitions in the past say the combination of two wars abroad, an economic crisis at home and unparalleled security threats make this one of the most challenging and important transition periods in modern history.
The center of operations for the transition is a nondescript office building in downtown Washington, D.C. The only hint that something important is taking place inside is the concrete security barriers that surround the block.
For months, the General Services Administration has been working to set up office space in the building for 500 people. Wednesday, the Obama staffers began to arrive.
"Our team of people are actively running around," said GSA Presidential Transition Director Gail Lovelace. "We're setting up computers, working through security issues ... there's a lot of activity right now related to the transition."
The leaders of Obama's transition team include people who've been advising him during the campaign, and who've worked in previous Democratic administrations. John Podesta was President Clinton's chief of staff. Valerie Jarrett is an adviser who has been close to the Obamas for years. Longtime aide Pete Rouse has been Obama's chief of staff in the Senate.
The three are making decisions about Cabinet appointments and overseeing dozens of small groups known as "parachute teams." Those teams drop into every agency to learn from — and occasionally clash with — the Bush administration officials who are currently in charge.
"The task is anywhere from enormous to overwhelming," says Robert Raben, a consultant who has worked for Democrats in Congress and at the Justice Department.
"Everybody at the top pretty much agrees we want to have an orderly transition," Raben says. "On the security side, there's a very strong desire, notwithstanding our significant disagreements, that you want a stable government."
Raben notes that there is always a push by outgoing administration officials to implement last-minute initiatives — and that incoming administration officials tend to push back against those initiatives. He calls it "the nerd's equivalent of mano a mano combat."
"There will be strong and loud conversations in the general counsels' offices throughout the agencies about what should happen between Nov. 5 and Jan. 20," Raben says.
Those power struggles began to take shape days before the election.
Elaine Duke, the Department of Homeland Security's undersecretary for management, sent out an all-staff memo shortly before the election saying that "during this time of transition, DHS employees should continue to follow the direction and instructions of the current leadership."
The memo states that transition team members "are respected guests and are not federal employees." DHS workers are instructed not to answer questions from transition team members. Instead, the memo says, all questions should be directed to specially chosen point people in the department.
"That is consistent with transition policy," said Paul McNulty, a Republican who worked on the transition from President George H.W. Bush to Clinton in 1992 — and from Clinton to George W. Bush in 2000.
"It's awkward at first," McNulty said, "and there is some hesitation to embrace these folks coming in. You have to get over that awkwardness, and then you begin to work more collaboratively."
The degree of collaboration can differ from one agency to another. President Bush said Wednesday that Obama's transition team would have his "complete cooperation."
Before the election — in an unprecedented move — about 100 people from teams for Obama and for Republican John McCain were given top-secret security clearances. That ensured that the winner would start getting national security briefings immediately after the victor was declared.
Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen, who was on the Clinton transition team in 1992, believes the transition to Obama has much higher stakes because of the many national security issues involved.
"He and President Bush have very different views on a range of issues, especially related to counterterrorism," Johnsen says. Those issues, she says, include the Guantanamo Bay facility, detainee treatment and interrogation practices.
"We need to start now, during the transition, making sure the country is moving in the direction President-elect Obama wants to take the country," Johnsen says.
Obama's team has two-and-a-half months, and counting.