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Former Reagan White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein: preparing for the presidency
(CNN) – George W. Bush said November 30 that the Republicans are "getting our team in place" to assume the presidency of the United States, despite Democrat Al Gore’s court challenge. Bush met with his presumed secretary of state, retired General Colin Powell, and his vice presidential running mate Dick Cheney at his ranch in Texas. Meanwhile Gore’s attorneys asked the Florida Supreme Court to order an immediate hand recount of some 14,000 disputed ballots in the state’s contested presidential voting. Florida’s slate of electors to the Electoral College needs to be named by December 12.
Ken Duberstein was the White House Chief of Staff under the Reagan administration. He is also the former General Services Administration (GSA) director of congressional and intergovernmental affairs. Duberstein was in charge of President George Bush's transition into the White House. He is now the CEO and chairman of a consulting firm, the Duberstein Group.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Ken Duberstein, and welcome.
Ken Duberstein: It is nice to be online with everybody. I look forward to answering questions on the transition process, whether it is a friendly transition -- i.e. from a Republican to a Republican or a Democrat to a Democrat -- or if it is a so-called hostile takeover, where it is between a president of one party and the president-elect of another party.
Chat Moderator: Is it easier to transition between two presidents from the same party or from different parties?
Ken Duberstein: Well, you would think it would be easier to transition from two people of the same party rather than a so-called hostile takeover. In reality, there are usually far more bumps between two of the same party. Therefore a friendly takeover, as it were, is most times much more difficult.
The reasoning is very simple. If you are a Cabinet member or a political appointee of one administration and the president-elect is of the same party, an awful lot of people assume that they will stay on in their current jobs and, therefore, make plans to dig in. The problem for the president-elect is that he needs to demonstrate to the American people a fresh start, a new beginning, and so virtually all of the people planning to hold over must be replaced. Those dislocations can be quite difficult and painful.
Chat Moderator: What are the usual steps to transition from president-elect to president? What are the first priorities?
Ken Duberstein: The first priority of a president-elect is to begin assembling the people who will help him run the White House and his new administration. He needs to assemble a team that is not only there to help him govern but also to signal to the American people the direction he wants to take the country in and his priorities for his four year term. The personnel issue has to be primary during the early days -- in fact, all days of the transition.
A president-elect also needs to get his bearings as far as the budgets, the policies, the problems and the bumps in the road for each Cabinet agency and for the White House and to know where the landmines may be buried. In a relatively short time, he needs to be up to speed because the American people expect the president-elect to hit the ground running when he is sworn in at high noon on January 20. The American people will not tolerate a president who is half-staffed or is not prepared to take the reigns fully on January 20.
That is why this compressed schedule during transition is so urgent and why we need to promptly resolve the election outcome.
Question from Cogar: Will a delay on transitioning until after the electoral votes are cast on December 18 be that great of an issue?
Ken Duberstein: I believe it is incumbent upon Governor Bush, and perhaps Vice President Gore, to be doing vetting of individuals who they are considering for the Cabinet and the White House, to be focusing their energies on those names and on that process urgently. It takes several weeks for background clearances once a president-elect is designated and he, in turn, designates names to the FBI. We only have approximately seven weeks to go before Inauguration Day.
Also, remember that his Cabinet appointees must go before the U.S. Senate for confirmation prior to being sworn in as Cabinet officers. And so the time is quickly running out for there to be a smooth transition, ample opportunity to do the proper vetting and then the Senate confirmations. You recall, I think in 1992, when President-elect Clinton was slow off the mark; the initial months of his administration were, to say the least, not terribly smooth.
I think whether it is Governor Bush or Vice President Gore, either needs to get on with the job of preparing for January 20 and the importance of being able to govern immediately. A president-elect has to set a tone for the country. And, certainly in Washington, he needs to reach out and start building bipartisanship in a very evenly divided House and Senate if he is to have any realistic chance of getting his various programs enacted into law.
Question from Cogar: I would think that transition is in the back of each candidate’s mind even before Election Day. Why do we really need such a protracted transition period?
Ken Duberstein: The very simple answer is that before Election Day, the focus of 99.9 percent of the candidates’ time must be on getting elected, not on governing.
They cannot spend much time thinking about the right person for each job, not only in a Cabinet, in a sub-Cabinet, or in a sub-sub-Cabinet, but also throughout the White House. We are talking about 3,000 jobs that a new president can fill, approximately 600 of which require Senate confirmation.
Question from Cogar: President Clinton did not receive transition funds until December 6 after he won the election over G. H. W. Bush. Why is the transition funding such an issue with the G. W. Bush campaign this time?
Ken Duberstein: For George W. Bush, who believes in his heart that he won the election, every day is important in building a government. Remember, he has not been governing in Washington, unlike Al Gore. Becoming familiar with the programs, policies, budget and business ways of Washington demands that he takes the reigns as early as he can so that he can get a head start on putting together his government for January 20.
It would be a tad bit easier -- in the sense of timing -- for Al Gore, who has all sorts of Democrats in place, even if he will ultimately replace many of them.
Chat Moderator: Being that the Transition Act did not foresee and does not provide for contested races such as these, and the transition process is very time consuming, will reform of the transition process be called for?
Ken Duberstein: Well, there is going to be a hearing on Monday before a House of Representatives committee to look at the Presidential Transition Act. As an outgrowth, there may be changes recommended in light of a contested election.
Question from Bush20000: Ken, would you say the GSA (General Services Administration) is not holding up the Constitution by not allowing Bush to do his transition?
Ken Duberstein: I don't think this is a constitutional issue. I wish there was a way for GSA to make transition funds available to both sides, the sooner the better, so they can be fully prepared on January 20.
Chat Moderator: Bush met today with Colin Powell, who is rumored to be his choice for secretary of state. Bush also made the statement that he was "getting our team in place." Why is Bush making his transition efforts so visible now when he has spent several days in seclusion?
Ken Duberstein: I think it is very prudent for Governor Bush to be consulting and asking advice and thinking about putting his team together. I feel confident that even when he has been on his ranch, he is talking by phone and talking with staff about putting the Cabinet and his White House staff together. This is just one of the public manifestations, but I assure you a lot is going on in private.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
Ken Duberstein: I believe this transition time is fundamental to begin governing the country after January 20. You do not want a haphazard start. You want a strong new beginning. It is essential for the country, let alone the world, that the United States hands off the presidency from one person to the next without any dislocations or serious bumps.
It takes time to make a Cabinet. It takes time to put a White House staff together. It takes time to romance the Congress, even in the best of times. Let us suggest that these last three weeks are unprecedented and there are a lot of uncertainties. We need to reach finality so that the next president can get going.
That is why the transition period is so essential and why I would hope the election result is wrapped up in the next few days. While I believe Governor Bush won Florida and, therefore, the election, I believe we need to find closure so that the official transition process to a new president can commence.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.
Ken Duberstein: I want you to know I really enjoyed this opportunity. I hope my answers were useful and I hope to talk with you again soon.
Ken Duberstein joined the Allpolitics Chat via telephone from Washington, D.C. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Thursday, November 30, 2000.
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