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Understanding presidential transitions

January 11, 2001
Web posted at: 4:27 PM EST (2127 GMT)


After a presidential candidate has won the election, he must initiate a "transition" process whereby key personnel are selected who will collectively comprise important policy-making and/or advisory positions in the new administration. These personnel include, among others, the fourteen Cabinet secretary positions and their deputies, White House staffers, senior advisers, assorted presidential counselors, and thousands of bureaucratic appointments that a new president must complete, including independent and regulatory agency jobs, ambassadorships, and vacant U.S. attorney positions. In all, a total of roughly 7000 to 8000 slots must be filled during the 2000-2001 Bush transition, with 1500 requiring Senate confirmation and 400-500 needed just for the core White House staff. Also, the new president must prepare three major presidential addresses and deliver them to Congress and the nation-the Inaugural Address, the State of the Union Address, and the status of the American Economy. A massive federal budget of $1.8 trillion dollars must also be prepared by the president and carefully correlated with policy priorities. In short, a move from campaigning to actual governing now becomes necessary, a move that must go as smoothly as possible during the time frame prior to the president's inauguration. The "president's team" should be in place by that date. Normally, there are 73 days between election day and inauguration (January 20th). However, the disputed 2000 presidential election was not ultimately settled until 36 days after the election. Hence, president-elect George W. Bush has had far less time to complete his administration's transition.

Obviously, there are different transition problems depending upon what specific kind of presidential candidate is involved-be it a first time president (Bill Clinton in 1992 or George W. Bush in 2000), a reelected, second-term chief executive (Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Bill Clinton in 1996), or a vice president, now a newly- elected president, who assumes power after his presidential boss's tenure is over (George Bush in 1988 from Ronald Reagan). In the second term example, there is an ample pool of holdover administrative talent from the first four years. In the "vice-president, now president illustration," skilled, well-known decision-makers are readily available inside and outside of the government. But the basic objective remains the same for any transition procedure-placing the most capable and loyal individuals in positions of responsibility, people who in turn can substantially assist the new or reelected president in achieving his vision for the nation. For example, Bill Clinton, in 1992, established an experienced economic "brain trust"-Lloyd Bentsen at Treasury, Leon Panetta at the OMB (Office of Management and Budget), and Robert Rubin at the National Economic Council-who were adept at handling the difficult economic problems confronting the nation. Selecting administrators who are perceived as capable by the media helps the new administration's image. Typically, the media provides a "honeymoon period" for the president-elect, commenting on transition selections and enveloping the new administration in a journalistic framework of mostly positive expectations (until disappointment invariably sets in at some point!). However, troublesome transition appointments can adversely impact upon the new administration's image of competency. One only has to witness the 2001 challenges by Democrats and liberal interest groups to three of Bush's Cabinet nominees-former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft as Attorney General (viewed by them as being too extreme on abortion and insensitive to minorities), former Colorado attorney Gale Norton as Interior Secretary (perceived as being pro-business and anti-environment) and Linda Chavez as Secretary of Labor. Chavez, who admitted housing and giving money to a Guatemalan woman who was in the country illegally in 1991 and 1992, withdrew her nomination. Chavez blamed the media for blowing the story out of proportion and labeled herself a victim of "search and destroy politics." Whether congressional hearings on the other Bush nominations would further intensify partisanship remained an open question. So, in the final analysis, what should be done to make a presidential transition effective, based upon the lessons of previous presidential administrations?

Transition Lesson #1

Begin as early as possible: Clearly, time is needed to choose, carefully, members of the new administration. A President who delays appointing a White House Chief of Staff until mid-December (as was the case with Clinton in 1992), or a presidential assistant for domestic and economic policy until early January (George Bush in 1989), or who "hurries" his Cabinet selections may harm his ability to convert campaign promises into truly effective public policies. There is also the question of giving the FBI enough time to do thorough background checks and completing financial disclosure forms pertaining to all key appointments (the investigative process may take weeks or even months for some personnel). As an example, Jimmy Carter began transition planning well before Election Day, a practice that has usually been emulated by subsequent presidents. In 1988, George Bush had already selected his Secretary of State, James Baker, before his actual campaign commenced. Similarly, his son, George W. Bush, made it quite clear during the 2000 campaign that former General Colin Powell would be his probable choice for Secretary of State. Indeed, transition scholars believe that presidential candidates should begin gathering information on prospective appointees shortly after their nominations at the national conventions!

Transition Lesson #2

Minimize friction between the campaign and transition teams: There must be cooperation and trust between those individuals who have worked on the campaign and those who head the transition operation. In the 1976 Jimmy Carter case, the campaign team, headed by Hamilton Jordan, believed they were being cut out of the planning for the new administration when Carter selected "outsider" Jack Watson as his transition chief. Conversely, both Reagan in 1980 and Bush in 1988 avoided this problem by selecting transition heads respected and well-known by campaign staffers. In 2000, George W. Bush also defused this potential roadblock by choosing his vice-presidential running mate, Dick Cheney, to oversee the transition. A further bonus was Cheney's earlier 1970s experience in handling transitions, especially given his role as a former White House Chief of Staff to Republican President Gerald Ford.

Transition Lesson #3

Establish close cooperation with the outgoing administration: It is important that the transition team work with key officials from the old administration in order to facilitate an orderly and effective transfer of power. The new team requires critical information in order to assume the management of the federal government on inauguration day. Hence, cooperation is essential. Indeed, as observed by the 1986 National Commission on Presidential Transitions, "all the parties involved in transitions-the incoming administration, the outgoing administration, and the permanent officials of the civil, foreign, and military services-should regard the transfer of responsibility as an occasion for cooperation in the national interest, regardless of the individuals in office." In the past, key officials of the outgoing administration have even been retained, temporarily, by the new administration as a way of preserving continuity and facilitating the flow of vital information. This is especially important on foreign policy matters. Thus, President Eisenhower's staff secretary, General Andrew Goodpaster, provided advice to the Kennedy Administration for a time in 1961. In addition, the new president's Chief of Staff can play a huge role in preserving amicable relationships, either as a Washington insider based upon prior governmental experience (Andrew Card, George W. Bush's Chief of Staff, was Secretary of Transportation under Mr. Bush's father) and/or by actively seeking out the advice of key officials from the outgoing presidential administration.

Transition Lesson #4

Develop an understanding with Congress: A president-elect must try to achieve a good rapport with Congress. Reagan and his team during the 1980 transition were especially effective in fostering early and personal linkages with Congress, meeting with key House and Senate leaders in a spirit of bipartisanship, relying on numerous courtesy phone calls to influential rank-and-file legislators, clarifying future policy priorities and positions, appointing congressional advisory groups and creating a specialized office of congressional relations in the White House. Other presidents, such as Jimmy Carter, were not as successful in managing the legislative arena. In the 2000-2001 transition, George W. Bush did court Congress, but the bitter partisanship generated by the election, problems involving several cabinet appointments (see above), and Democratic doubts about the Bush policy agenda all somewhat inhibited the president-elect's efforts at bridge-building with the Democratic opposition. Conversely, Dick Cheney had close ties with the Republican leadership in the House (Speaker Dennis Hastert) and Senate (Majority Leader Trent Lott) but also the respect of key Democratic leaders (Richard Gephardt in the House, Tom Daschle in the Senate). Cheney, a former congressman from Wyoming and House minority whip, knew his way around Congress, a definite plus for the Bush presidency.

Transition Lesson #5

Organize the White House staff, establish a few "doable" priorities within an unambiguous policy agenda, and implement a successful plan of action early in the administration's history: It is vital in the media age that a new president achieve a dramatic, successful beginning, thereby generating journalistic, congressional, and public approval. Thus, the president must be able to tap the political talents of his well-organized, policy-savvy set of advisers who in turn can help him overcome political resistance to the all-important policy agenda. Furthermore, the establishment of clear lines of communication and a logical chain-of-command to the president are "musts" in the life of any successful administration. Presidents must be able to receive unambiguous and valuable information from their staffs. The old adage that "nothing succeeds like success" is still true in American politics. A few major legislative victories within the first six months of a new presidency can promote the image of presidential competence, give the administration a public-relations advantage, and deepen the reservoir of political good will, particularly as evidenced by public opinion polls. To many citizens, it will appear that the new president is also keeping at least some of his campaign promises. Accordingly, in 2001, George W. Bush planned to pursue several key policy initiatives during his first 180 days in office, including his 1.6 trillion tax cut, education reform, a patients' bill of rights, and a prescription-drug plan for seniors. New presidents must choose their policy battles carefully, so that they do not prematurely deplete their political capital. A satisfactory transition is the necessary first step before the political wars commence.

Discussion Questions for Consideration

1. What must the transition period accomplish for a new, incoming presidential administration?

2. What problems did the shorter transition period pose for president-elect George W. Bush?

3. Why is it so important for a new president to have his key advisors in place by Inauguration Day?

4. What lessons have been learned from previous presidential transitions?

5. Why is it important for a new president to have some of his promises translated into actual law during his first six months in office?

6. What special abilities does Dick Cheney have in implementing the Bush transition?

Web-site Reference: For further information, please consult John P. Burke's "Lessons From Past Presidential Transitions," found at

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