Martha Joynt Kumar is a professor of political science at Towson University and the author and coauthor of several books on White House-related subjects. She is an expert on White House communications operations, presidential publicity and presidential transitions. Kumar’s latest book on the 2008 presidential transition is set to be released in 2013. She spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.
How should federal managers navigate a presidential transition?
They can sum up their work and the work of their employees so that incoming people are aware of the talent that exists. Often, the White House will look with suspicion on people in departments and agencies but, in fact, they need to see them as resources. One approach is to have the managers provide information that highlights all of the things they can do, who their people are, what type of resource they represent and what all the programs are. Managers should gather information on campaign promises or second-term promises so that they’re thinking of what is coming ahead. Information is the key, and providing it to the right people at the right time.
Which was the most successful presidential transition?
The 2008 to 2009 transition is about as good as we’ve had. With the two wars and a catastrophic financial situation, the Bush administration put a great deal of energy into planning early and bringing the two sides together. Memoranda also helped get the new administration up to speed on what happened over the course of the Bush administration. However, written information has to be supplemented with principal-to-principal contact, and President Bush and President Obama exchanged information and talked about substantive issues. Even at the lower levels, incoming people came to White House sessions to sit next to those who were already in office to learn about the operations and have frank discussions about what works and what doesn’t.
What should a challenger’s campaign team be doing to be ready to govern on Day One?
National security is an important issue. Campaign teams should have a sense of what the issues are, the events that are underway and should have preparations on how to deal with possible eventualities. They also need to make use of the intelligence briefings. In the area of personnel, they need to start focusing on the hundred positions that will be important to the issues you plan to highlight when you first come into office. When Ronald Reagan was president-elect, he and his team focused on 87 positions that related to the economy. An incoming president needs to come in with a briefcase full of executive orders, legislative memoranda and staff guidelines ready to get underway on Day One. Early actions let people know the direction he wants for his administration and gets the public acquainted with his presidential style.
What obstacles can impede presidential transitions?
One of them is the pressure to bring in campaign workers. You need some campaign people because they have knowledge of why you’re there in the first place, but you also need people who have experience with governing. People with campaign experience have you looking at things in terms of black and white. When you get into the White House, you’re always going to be dealing with shades of grey, because compromise is important. Compromising is often what governing is about.
What are the attributes that make a president a great leader? Which presidents do you think have exhibited these best?
A president needs to be a listener. You have to listen in order to learn which issues are of critical importance. You need to be able to explain what the challenges are that we are facing, lay out how we will face those challenges and then give updates on the actions of the government in that particular area. Another quality is the ability to inspire people in a way that gives them hope. One more quality is having an understanding of the resources available in departments and agenciesand making use of them.
I think Theodore Roosevelt combined a lot of these qualities. He was able to get a great deal done without a crisis. He showed that a president should be a world leader — negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese war, facilitating the building of the Panama Canal and receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Usually the great leaders that we think of, such as Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, governed during periods of war. Theodore Roosevelt wanted to take a strong position on issues that he felt were important, including domestic issues such as railroad regulation. All along the way, he provided strong presidential leadership.
Do you have a favorite story about a presidential transition?
President Truman wanted to bring together both candidates in 1952, Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower, for lunch at the White House. Stevenson accepted, but Eisenhower did not. Eisenhower and his team were very suspicious of what Truman had in mind. Truman wanted to brief them, have all the Cabinet members brief them on their departments and what was going on, and answer whatever questions they had. In 2008, I think for the first time, we really got beyond the partisan suspicion to have both sides working together, including being in the same room and doing that well before the presidential election and prior to the conventions.
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