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Transitions Are Hard


While recent history has provided smooth transitions from one presidential administration to the next, U.S. history is rich with examples of more difficult handoffs from occupants of the White House to their successors.

Transitions can be difficult. Whether you’re starting a new job, trying to get a toddler to move from playtime to nap time, or dealing with jet lag after traveling a long distance, adjusting to a new reality can be a challenge.


Given the enormous bureaucracy of the U.S. federal government, the transfer in presidential power can be an especially difficult transition. And despite more recent examples of civility and cooperation, handoffs from one administration to the next haven’t always been seamless.


According to Aron Solomon, adjunct professor at McGill University, the transition between Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower is one example. As Solomon explained, the “period from the election to inauguration was marred by a complete lack of civility between the two which included Eisenhower refusing to attend a holiday lunch at the White House and refusing to meet President Truman before the inauguration ceremony.”


Solomon recalled that President Abraham Lincoln also had a difficult transition due to the fact that “at just under 40 percent of the popular vote, [he] had a smaller plurality in the election than any president in American history aside from John Quincy Adams, who won the 1824 election with less than 31 percent of the vote.”


What turned the tide in favor of Lincoln? Good old retail politics.


Solomon explained, on his long train journey from Illinois to Washington, D.C., Lincoln “was able to change American public opinion by bringing out massive crowds.” As a result, “By the time he arrived in Washington, the legend and myth that we recognize as Abraham Lincoln today had begun to form.” (Though President-elect Joe Biden is a regular on Amtrak, his travel on the rails is unlikely to the change hearts and minds of ardent Trump supporters.)


According to author Krishnadev Calamur, other dark spots in presidential transition history include the vitriol between the nation’s second president, John Adams, and its third, Thomas Jefferson. Things were so sour between the two that by inauguration day Adams refused to watch Jefferson being sworn in. President Andrew Johnson also refused to attend the inauguration of his successor Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, and, in 1828, Andrew Jackson supporters stormed the White House after their candidate defeated John Quincy Adams. Adams had to be spirited out of the back entrance of the White House.


There is, of course, danger with a shortened, or contentious, transition. In a recent New York Daily News column, Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier reminded readers that the 9/11 Commission found that the shortened transition between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush due to the Florida recount “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees” and left “the country vulnerable and ill-prepared in the national security arena.”


There’s more. In an August 2020 Atlantic article, scholar Rebecca Friedman Lissner said, “Perhaps the most famous fiasco” resulting from a presidential transition “is the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which failed in large part because of information lost between the departing Eisenhower administration and the incoming Kennedy administration.” Lissner said, “there are many other examples of miscommunications and missteps in the national-security realm, such as when the outgoing Carter team failed to alert [President-elect Ronald] Reagan of Israel’s impending strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.”


One reason that transitions are contentious and fraught with miscommunication could be the fact that there is not a set protocol outlining what is to happen.


In her book, Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power, Martha Joynt Kumar noted, “There are no constitutional requirements or guidelines for the shape of the transition nor the actions that the incoming and outgoing administrations should take during this period.” Legislation passed in 1963 outlines the funding and some of the “agency help” a presidential transition team should receive but does not set out “what needs to be done between the presidential election and the inauguration.”


As a result, as Kumar concluded, “What happens during this period depends on what the winning presidential candidate does to prepare for office and what the incumbent president chooses to do as he leaves office. … It is up to those departing and entering the White House to determine how they want to prepare to leave or come into office.”


The lack of guidance is stunning considering the enormous job that both the outgoing administration and the incoming one have to do.


As Center Forward explains, the president-elect must:

  • Turn its campaign promises into policy. This work includes crafting the president’s first state of the union address, creating a budget for the next fiscal year, and detailing “a larger agenda for the first several months of their presidency.”

  • Staff the administration. Within the federal government there are more than 4,000 “political appointees” – individuals who serve at the pleasure of the president and who, unlike career staff, come and go with an administration. Approximately one-quarter of these individuals will need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. President-elect Joe Biden also could have to fill several important financial regulatory positions, including the spot currently occupied by U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Jay Clayton. Clayton announced this week that he will leave his post at the end of this year, six months before his term was due to expire in June 2021.

  • Start – and finish – HR paperwork. The transition team is given temporary office space, human resources, communications, and IT support, but all of those new employees mentioned above also need to fill out the normal HR materials, along with detailed financial disclosures. Many are also subject to detailed federal background checks.


President-elect Biden has been able to start on the first two objectives, at least. He already has named a White House chief of staff, for example, and yesterday announced nine White House senior staff hires, including his deputy chief of staff, his director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and his White House counsel.


President Trump, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with his own agenda. He will continue to try to win confirmation of Judy Shelton, his nominee to the Federal Reserve Board. (The Senate rejected that nomination on Tuesday, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could allow the chamber to vote on Shelton again.) And, according to Bloomberg, President Trump will nominate Brian Brooks, acting Comptroller of the Currency, to a five-year term leading the agency. Bloomberg said, “The move could force President-elect Joe Biden to remove Brooks and replace him with someone who would impose tougher Wall Street regulations, using untested legal authority that says the president can force out a comptroller ‘upon reasons to be communicated by him to the Senate.’”


Transitions don’t have to be as difficult as it seems the current one might be, however.


In his newly-released book, former President Barack Obama wrote, “Whether it was because of the respect for the institution, because of lessons learned from his father, bad memories of his own transition or just basic decency, President [George W.] Bush would end up doing all he could to make the 11 weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly.”


In a 2015 Government Executive magazine interview, Chris Lu, who headed up Obama’s transition in 2008, recalled that the Bush White House met with the Obama campaign and members of late Sen. John McCain’s campaign “before the election” and even helped potential staffers “learn software, and read memoranda of understanding from agency review teams, and national security memos drafted by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley with help from the Defense and State departments.” Lu said, “It was a cooperative environment.”


The Obama/Biden administration followed the precedent set by the Bush/Cheney White House.


On Nov. 10, 2016, just one day after the contentious election, the Obama White House issued a fact sheet outlining transition planning activities, including how the White House would help prepare the incoming administration to take over the nation’s foreign policy. The fact sheet said the president-elect and other senior officials would begin receiving daily intelligence briefings and would attend “two interagency exercises to inform and familiarize the incoming administration on domestic incident management practices.”


Additionally, as Government Executive said, to “better empower President-elect Donald Trump’s appointees to influence their agencies upon taking office,” President Obama placed a hiring freeze for new top career officials starting on Dec. 7, 2016 through the remainder of his presidency. President Obama also requested that all non-termed political appointees send him their resignations by Dec. 7. Office of Personnel Management acting Director Beth Cobert said the resignations would “provide the maximum flexibility” for Trump to assemble his administration.


There are now 63 days until inauguration day. As historian Martha Joynt Kumar noted, what happens in those weeks will be defined by two men and how well they can get along.

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