John P. Avlon
Author, Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics
Today is President-elect Obama's first press conference. In some ways, it's the most consequential press conference of his administration, because as the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
President-elect Bill Clinton's first press conference proved disastrous enough to derail the first years of his presidency. A planted question by a conservative reporter about gays in the military was framed as a litmus test on Clinton's trustworthiness and willingness to fulfill campaign promises. Clinton couldn't resist taking the bait and talked about it at length, giving it the appearence of a new administration priority.
As one of Clinton's advisors later said, "It sent precisely the wrong message. I'm not saying he shouldn't have taken that position, but as the first thing he did? It was exactly the sort of 'liberal elitist' issue that we'd been trying to submerge throughout the campaign. It sent a signal that he was going to govern differently from the way he campaigned – as an old Democrat."
A similar risk exists for Barack Obama. He won largely because he inspired people to believe in a post-partisan approach to problem solving, as a rejection of the hyper-partisanship of the Bush era. Now is the time to add substance to that centrist style by reaffirming his pledge to appoint a bipartisan cabinet and prioritize policies that can unite the country around the administration like energy independence, rather than getting distracted by divisive liberal special interest issues like 'card-check" or the so‑called "fairness doctrine."
Obama's first appointment of Congressman Rahm Emanuel to be Chief of Staff sends a message that he does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Emanuel was a veteran of Bill Clinton's transition and has learned the lessons that led to the 1994 Republican revolution. Announcing the reappointment of Secretary of Defense Gates would be a good way to build that bridge to the center on the basis of a responsible transition to a new administration led by a president who understands the need to balance idealism with realism.
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