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Presidential Transitions and Foreign Policy

Introduction

President-elect Barack Obama faces one of the most difficult foreign policy landscapes of any modern incoming administration. The forty-fourth president will have to deal with a global financial crisis, two wars, nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, and the ongoing threat of terrorism. This places extra urgency on the need for an effective, well-coordinated transition period, during which the team of the president-elect must shift focus--and personnel--from a campaign footing to an emphasis on choosing priorities and implementing policies. Past experience shows a mixed record of success in this crucial period. This year's transition began months before Election Day, when President Bush directed aides to coordinate national security and other transition issues with the two parties' presumptive nominees, Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). In the run-up to Inauguration Day on January 20, the president-elect announces top cabinet posts for foreign policy, national security, and the economy, and assembles a White House team to coordinate the cabinet's efforts. Experts say putting together a foreign policy team whose members work well together is as important as selecting for experience and talent.

Making the Transition

The eleven-week period between Election Day and inauguration day is a time of major turnover in the executive branch, involving not only a new president and department heads but thousands of political appointees who staff federal agencies. It is also a time for incoming presidents to identify priority issues to translate into policy. Some experts recommend choosing a small, manageable number of such issues for starters. "It is essential to prioritize your long-term goals and then have a pocketful of doable actions ready for quick victories," writes Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess.

The incoming team also uses this period to set up a decision-making process, which varies depending on...

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