In the summer of 2008, a senior adviser to then-candidate Barack Obama publicly acknowledged that a small group was working on the presidential transition, prompting a spokesman for GOP opponent John McCain to accuse Obama of “dancing in the end zone” before crossing the 50-yard line.
Thanks to presidential transition law amendments in 2010 and 2016, the idea of candidates preparing to govern well ahead of the November election is no longer considered presumptuous. While the candidates must focus on campaigning, laying the groundwork for a smooth transfer of power is now viewed as a necessity given the national security threats and serious domestic challenges that may confront a new chief executive on the very first day in office.
This month, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton named a leadership team for transition planning headed by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, an announcement that follows Republican Donald Trump’s appointment in May of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as his transition chairman.
This is the first time in history that two presidential campaigns have publicly acknowledged setting up transition shops well in advance of the election, a sharp contrast to days gone by when most transition planning was crammed into just two and half months between the November election and the inauguration.
As a result of the recent changes in the law, both transition teams now are using government-provided equipment and office space in the same building near 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, bringing on staff and volunteers, and availing themselves of government assistance. Some months ago, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough initiated transition planning in the agencies, and White House and agency councils have been holding strategy and planning meetings.
These are positive developments and something going right in Washington. The last thing we want is a real life drama paralleling the scene from the 1972 movie The Candidate when Robert Redford’s character turned to his campaign manager after winning a close Senate election and asked,” What do we do now?”
The two presidential transition teams have the herculean task of preparing for the takeover of the largest and most important organization on the planet—an entity that spends $4 trillion a year and has a workforce of 2.1 million civilian employees and more than 2 million active-duty and reserve members of the armed forces.
The transition planning requires identifying potential candidates to fill 4,000 politically appointed positions, including more than 1,000 Senate-confirmed leadership jobs; setting budget priorities and a policy agenda for the first months of the administration; getting a handle on the challenges facing the departments and agencies; and planning a management agenda to ensure that polices can be effectively implemented.
Following the election, it will be critical for the winning candidate’s transition team to work closely with Congress to expedite the confirmation process for political nominees, and for the new administration to prepare its appointees to operate in the unique federal environment and to work closely with seasoned career executives.
The lengthy confirmation process often leaves important positions vacant for extended periods of time, including highly sensitive posts dealing with public safety as well as economic and national security. In 2009, for example, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was left “home alone” for months without his top deputies during the height of the financial crisis.
Once elected, the next president should quickly select the White House staff and seek to get the top 100 agency leaders in place immediately after the inauguration. The new president also should seek to have 300 more key political appointees confirmed by August congressional recess, an effort that will require laying the groundwork during the transition and intense focus once in office.
There is a public expectation that the nation’s newly elected president will hit the ground running, but the transition of power and knowledge from one president to another often has been rushed and chaotic, leaving the new chief executive on tenuous ground. Let’s hope, for the sake of the nation, that the head start in transition planning by the two campaigns this year will pay big dividends, and that this process will enable our next president to be fully prepared to govern on day one.
Max Stier is president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which through its Center for Presidential Transition helps candidates prepare to govern.