Navigating the first year

Navigating the first year

Just as the transition period marks a turning point for the country, so too does it mark a turning point in the First Year Project. The peaceful transfer of power is about to take place.  So, in cooperation with the Brookings Institution, we assembled some of the most effective and important advisors to the last five presidents to discuss the opportunities and challenges that will face the Trump administration.

Our half-day conference—in front of a standing-room live audience and a larger one watching via C-SPAN—explored everything from assembling the cabinet, getting them to work together as a team, and working through the policy, politics, and public communication of that agenda.

The first panel—on the first principles of assembling a government—featured Joshua Bolten (President George W. Bush’s final chief of staff) and Chris Lu (executive director of the Obama transition) and was moderated by Barbara Perry, director of Presidential Studies at the Miller Center.  Together, these two men navigated what is widely regarded as one of the most effective transitions in recent history, which had the additional challenge of navigating through a financial crisis. Elaine Kamarck of Brookings also joined the discussion, having been responsible for the Reinventing Government effort of the Clinton-Gore First Year. Bolten emphasized the importance of teamwork; Lu went on to convey his worry that the Trump team is making the mistake of focusing too much on the big ticket items, the cabinet appointments, at the expense of key White House appointments that may be less glamorous. But the group agreed that there is time still for a course correction.

The second panel explored in greater detail the challenge of prioritizing, passing, and communicating a domestic policy agenda.  The Miller Center’s Nicole Hemmer drew out Dan Crippen, Dan Meyer, and Jen Psaki about the prospects of domestic agenda for 2017. One key theme was the need to remain focused as well as the need to get tough items whose gains are realized in the long term, such as the budget, done early. In one notable exchange, the group worried that campaign promises and ongoing rhetoric might offer up more than can realistically be achieved domestically in the first year. “Floor time of the U.S. Senate is a scarce resource,” Dan Meyer reminded the incoming team.  President-elect Trump may need to start prioritizing in order to be effective. Moreover, each spoke about the importance of the team each taking on the roles for which each member is assigned, and seeing the value in other contributions.  “I had a rule that I told the communications team,” said Dan Crippen, president Reagan’s domestic policy advisor. “I won’t do communications if you don’t do policy.”

In the final panel, Brookings' Martin Indyk spoke with the Miller Center’s Eric Edelman and Philip Zelikow—both veterans of the Bush 41 and 43 administrations—about national security challenges. The three discussed, among other topics, the recent phone call between President-elect Trump and Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen.  Philip Zelikow and Eric Edelman both thought that there is nothing wrong with shifting the diplomatic status quo. As Eric Edelman said, it might make great sense to send a signal to China that you will be tough in negotiations. But, as Philip Zelikow reminded, any decision of this kind must be made after careful deliberation and with strategic follow up in place. “Particularly since many people believe that the first foreign policy challenge may come in North Korea, “If you want to make friends in your first year, don’t pick unnecessary fights.” He worried about potential damage that may arise from enacting change for change's sake.