The Gore campaign is complaining about George W. Bush's effort to get a transition operation going, saying it is presumptuous of him to act like he will be president before victory is assured. In fact, there is nothing presumptuous about it. Indeed, it would be irresponsible for Bush to put off all planning for taking office until every "i" is dotted and "t" is crossed. Failure to prepare adequately now could handicap Bush's presidency for years to come.
What the Gore people are really trying to do is disable a Bush presidency, by deliberately hindering his ability to lead the federal government in January. Al Gore knows, as all sports fans do, that players who come into training camp late often never catch up, hurting their team's chances of victory. So, too, Gore thinks if he can keep Bush from starting transition preparation, it will hold him back long past the inauguration. Then, of course, Gore and his allies will complain that Bush was unprepared to take office.
Gore, on the other hand, faces no such "Catch 22" because he can simply keep Bill Clinton's appointees on indefinitely in key positions. Indeed, we are already seeing lobbying in the press for Gore to keep on some of the Clinton team. Paul Krugman of the New York Times, for example, thinks it would be foolhardy for Gore to replace Krugman's pal Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary. In any case, Gore clearly has a luxury that Bush necessarily lacks, in not needing to compress as much activity into the transition period.
Once the election is resolved, and Bush does begin to announce appointments for key positions, most attention will be on the cabinet. He will be under enormous political pressure to have all 14 cabinet secretaries named by Jan. 20. And Bush will have to give special attention to his defense and foreign policy team, so that he is prepared in the event of some international emergency. Unfortunately, this likely means that many key economic positions will be unfilled when he takes office.
While the economy appears to be in good shape, there are growing signs of a slowdown. Hence, Bush would be well advised to try and fill at least a few of the top economic posts outside the cabinet during the transition. Following is a short list of those I think he should give special attention to.
Federal Reserve: There are presently three vacancies on the 7-member Federal Reserve Board, including the vice chairman. Obviously, it is critical for Bush to have his people in these extremely important positions as soon as possible. Given Chairman Alan Greenspan's age -- he will turn 75 on March 6 -- Bush's appointment as vice chairman inevitably will be viewed as indicating his choice for Greenspan's replacement. His term does not expire until 2003, but there is already talk that Greenspan may retire well before then.
Treasury Department: There are several key subcabinet positions here that Bush should be aware of. First is the Undersecretary for International Affairs. This position is important because this person oversees exchange rates as well the international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund. Financial markets will be looking closely at Bush's appointment to this position to see if he plans to continue the Clinton administration's strong dollar policy, or support a weaker dollar in order to reduce the ballooning trade deficit.
The other key appointments at Treasury are in the area of tax policy. The most important is Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, who will have principal responsibility for developing and explaining any administration tax proposals. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Tax Analysis will also be important. This position is always held by an economist, whose job it is to do revenue forecasts and distributional analyses of tax legislation. The success or failure of administration tax initiatives often depends on how well this person does his job.
Justice Department: In recent years, the Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust has become an extremely powerful position. The Clinton administration has initiated the most aggressive antitrust policy in a generation, most notably in the Microsoft case. Determining how this case will be settled will be a major challenge for the person holding this post.
White House: There are several important economic positions within the White House itself. The most important is Director of the National Economic Council. This organization was created by the Clinton administration and had no counterpart in previous Republican administrations. It has become very important for coordinating and managing economic policy. Bush will send an early signal about his approach to economic policy if he appoints someone of high stature to this position or downgrades it to a lower level. (Bob Rubin was the first person to hold this post, an indication of its importance to Clinton.)
Within the White House there are several other key agencies. Among them are the Council of Economic Advisers, U.S. Trade Representative, and Office of Management and Budget. In the last agency, special attention should be given to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which will need to quickly review the slew of new government regulations being rammed through in the waning days of the Clinton administration.
This short list necessarily neglects numerous other important jobs that Bush will need to fill. However, many of the most significant are term appointments to independent regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission. Unfortunately, it will be years before Bush will have the opportunity to appoint a majority of members to these bodies.
Bush should ignore the Gore campaign's sniping about his transition operation. He should press ahead and prepare to name as many people to key positions as possible once the election is resolved. Although the cabinet will get most of the attention, there are many subcabinet positions that he should also try to fill by inauguration day. The success of his presidency may hinge on his ability to hit the deck running.