I have only just realised that all the Obama transition stories, which I mainly follow here, are real-life exemplification of a very interesting thing I have noticed in the eight or nine years I have been reviewing history books.
Viz., when I started, the central preoccupation of the books I was reading - which tended to be political biographies and popular histories, given that I was reviewing for the Sunday Times - was the locus and process of decision-making. Thus, we would have nitty-gritty accounts of cabinet and human relationships, whose ultimate end was to say that these were the people who influenced the influential decisions. Many of these books were great. Over the past decade, the focus has shifted away from 'Where and how were key decisions made?' to 'What constitutes good and effective governance?'
These are both perfectly respectable questions to ask. But it has vividly, vividly demonstrated the truth that we write the histories that explain the past in terms of our current fixations. A decade ago, secure and confident, we were asking detailed questions about decisions because we felt that all we needed to do was get the decision-making right, and the rest would follow. Post-Iraq, we have a different kind of respect for the compromised process of governance. We know what we want to achieve, but how do we get things done?
Thus, history books which once asked how Stalin's coterie of sycophants made decisions they hoped would curry his loony favour, now they start to concentrate more on what structures effectively imposed order on Soviet Russia - not as models, obviously, but as ways of understanding how order and governance work.
(Don't ask me to quote specifics - this is a trend I have been chuntering about for ages, and I could scurry through the bookstacks, but like any historiographical trend it is hedged with caveats, and the caveat hedges are thorny with exceptions, and all I have to beat my way through the hedge is the dull axe of mixed metaphor.)
Anyway, Obama: his transitions decisions have relentlessly focused on picking people who will be able to achieve ends effectively. Take this post from Marbury, which is what crystallised the whole thing for me. It says, in short, that Obama has big aims, is going after them in incremental, sensible fashion, and if it works, it might be incredibly influential as a strategy. I agree, and I would add only that Obama's concentration on the process is part of a broad intellectual trend, and while I have not studied it in any rigorous way, it is really interesting.