Stepping forcefully into a vacuum

First, there was a post-election flat spot. All the news was about things like where Barack Obama’s children would go to school and his pick up basketball games. But now, Obama has stepped forcefully into the vacuum left by an incumbent president who obviously wishes it was January 20 and that he was on his way back to Texas.

Now in full stride and picking up speed, the president-elect has made some tough choices on his top Cabinet posts. He has brought some relief, albeit temporarily, in the downward spiral of the stock market by making it clear he was not waiting to assume the job officially before outlining what he intends to do about the ailing economy. One can only wish him good luck.

Any doubt that Obama’s bringing a new game in town was dispelled by the news that he is cutting out corporations and special interests of all types from financing of his inauguration. It threatens to draw more people to Washington than any other in history. He followed that by announcing he would limit inauguration contributions to $50,000. At the risk of seeming cynical, it will be a miracle if he can pull it off given the huge costs associated with the affair. But political miracles seem to be what he is all about.

Obama’s plan to scour his first budgets for the funds to pay for the enormous costs of bailing out the economy have sent shivers down the spines of lobbyists in almost every area. It is a dose of reality for many of his liberal supporters. Another, of course, is his apparent decision to leave Defense secretary Robert Gates in his job to affect an orderly transition during wartime. Many of the more ardent opponents of U.S. policy in Iraq have urged a clean sweep of the Pentagon.

One would not be surprised to see the former Illinois senator take the oath of office sans jacket and with his sleeves rolled up.

A major question remaining is where the vice president-elect, Joe Biden, stands in all this. "Nowhere" might be a good answer. As former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was chosen for the second spot on the Democratic ticket to give Obama the foreign policy experience and credibility he lacked. But with Obama’s reported choice of Sen. Hillary Clinton for secretary of State, there is little room for Biden in that area. He now is said to be trying to get up to snuff on economic issues so he can advise the president.

What this means for Biden is what has been clear almost from the start of the presidential campaign: He served his purpose and now can be expected to become the prominent White House representative at funerals and other ceremonial functions the president doesn’t have time for. He most likely will spend significant time on Capitol Hill as president of the Senate, where he will have two offices and can lobby his old colleagues on important issues. This is the far more traditional role than the last two vice presidents who had specified responsibilities.

While Biden brought no real excitement to the ticket, his long Senate tenure made him a valuable asset. The fact that he clearly is qualified to assume the top job if necessary swayed many voters who saw that experience in sharp contrast to Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, who was far more charismatic but woefully unschooled in national political issues.

The weeks before inauguration can either pass tediously — slow and full of bad news — or they can be quick, exciting and with a fresh perspective. Obama appears to have chosen the second, realizing perhaps that the normal honeymoon for a new president may be short-lived.


(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)