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?