On Monday Jan. 26, before a standing-room-only crowd in the Sanford Room of the Warren Hunting Smith Library, veteran Washington staffer and presidential transition expert Stephen Hess presupposed how and why President Barack Obama will hit the ground running, not stumbling, during his first 100 days in office.
Hess’ lecture, “President Obama: Hitting the Ground Running,” is the first installment in this semester’s President’s Forum Series. It drew on his scholarly work in politics as a Senior Fellow Emeritus of Governance Studies at Brookings Institution, as well as insights from his latest book, “What Do We Do Now?: A Workbook for the President-elect.”
“There is not a school for Presidents,” commented Hess. “So unfortunately, any President-elect is going to have to unlearn all the things that made their successful journey to the White House possible.” Explaining how to deal with this, Hess noted that it is the arrogance of years in Washington and the ignorance of the new executive seat that is often the first downfall of newly-elected presidents. He commented that the greatest advantage Barack Obama has is, in fact, his inexperience.
“President Obama’s limited time in the Senate has been long enough to understand how Washington works but not too long to develop the barnacles that breed cynicism and closed mindedness.”
After reflecting and offering anecdotes from his time as a staffer of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, and as an adviser to Presidents Ford and Carter, Hess offered what he has come to understand as the steps for a successful presidential transition: fleshing out the important notions of remembering your promises and picking the right staff who knows how to work with and through Congress quickly.
Hess explained that Obama, in his selections of his Secretary of State, Federal Reserve, and Department of Defense appointees, has filled his office with those who have “worked the vineyards of Washington” and, in so doing, added a whole second layer to the power hierarchy of D.C.
By surrounding himself with both specific field experts and those who know the systems of Washington, Hess believes that Obama is poised to attack the most important aspect of any President’s first 100 days- the act of, as Hess says, “Calibrating conflict.”
Hess, who was a political speechwriter himself initially was disappointed with Obama’s inaugural speech, but after listening to it a few more times was eventually satisfied with the straightforward pragmatism of Obama’s words.”President Obama’s inauguration address should closely reflect his first 100 days,” stated Hess. “‘A new age of responsibility’ isn’t going to fit on a bumper sticker, but it encompasses the notion that our nation is in trouble and that there are a list of problems that need immediate attention.”
A distinguished research professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, Hess started off the “Q & A” session by sitting down with Iva Deutchman, professor of political science, DeWayne Lucas, associate professor of political science, and series host President Mark D. Gearan. He engaged in a dialogue with Deutchman about the fate of the Republican Party, concluding that there are cycles in governmental systems, and for the GOP “In the wilderness they will re-bloom,” Hess commented. Then, when Lucas expressed concern that there is no way for Obama to live up to the expectations of the political left, Hess drew on his centrist political leanings to explain that while he might not satisfy everyone, Obama will do what needs to be done.
The candid student questions challenged Hess on topics ranging from Obama’s global image to his cabinet structure and appointees. When asked if Obama’s successful road to the White House would change the face of politics, Hess responded, “My crystal ball isn’t quite working today, but the future is very bright indeed.”
The spring lineup for the President’s Forum Series at HWS features political insiders and analysts examining and exploring President Obama’s first 100 days in office. The next speaker in the series is TIME International Editor Michael Elliott who will offer an address at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 26 in the Geneva Room.
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty, staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members.