Report urges earlier planning for presidential transitions

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A17

An independent report on last year's presidential transition urges that future candidates formally begin to prepare for the transfer of power within days of the major-party nominating conventions, a change that would allow more time for a process that White House veterans agree is too often squeezed between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

The report, to be released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, reveals new details about Barack Obama's and John McCain's transition plans and their efforts to avoid appearing presumptuous during the final months of the 2008 presidential campaign, and it includes a generally favorable evaluation of the Obama administration's transition.

The authors urged Congress to require that major-party presidential candidates publicly appoint transition directors within two weeks of the nominating conventions -- and candidates to begin planning months before that. The move would "take the transition out of the shadows, and remove the stigma of presumptuousness," the report says.

"The big point is, let's set the objective of being able to govern by day one," said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit think tank that studies government operations and the federal workforce. "We have to be able to do that in the world that we're living in."

Of course, vetting potential nominees for top posts during a presidential campaign could carry significant political risks. The kinds of revelations that routinely torpedo nominations could prove damaging to candidates.

The report says that by Jan. 1, the president-elect should give the Senate the names of nominees for the 50 top defense, national security, economic and diplomatic jobs, to help speed Senate confirmation and security clearances. And the Senate should commit to confirming the top 50 officials at the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State and Treasury on or shortly after Inauguration Day.

It urges incumbent administrations to ensure that agencies provide the candidates' operations with regular briefings and secure office space and computers, as well as assistance with ethics and background investigations.

Views from the campaigns

The report's authors interviewed top aides from the Obama and McCain campaigns as part of an effort to examine how they prepared for a possible presidency.

The Obama team was determined not to repeat the mistakes of Bill Clinton's chaotic ascension, and then-President George W. Bush and his top staff members were committed to a seamless transition, Stier said.

Obama's planning began in the spring of 2008 with a $400,000 budget, 10 full-time staffers and dozens of volunteers, the report said. The transition team, led by former Clinton chief of staff John D. Podesta, obtained security clearances for more than 100 people to work on national security and economic matters.

Transition staffers had identified candidates for about 300 top jobs by Election Day, the report said. The team benefited from the work of Podesta's Center for American Progress think tank, which had published a book about how to run a Democratic administration, the report said. Aides also studied Sen. John F. Kerry's unused 2004 transition plans, according to the report.

The White House declined to comment on the report. Podesta was traveling and unavailable to comment.

McCain started discussing transition matters with six close aides in the spring of 2008, but those aides considered aggressive transition planning premature, believing that McCain would have an easier time succeeding Bush's Republican administration, the report said. The campaign spent $25,000 to $30,000 on transition planning and hired New York-based executive recruiter Russ Gerson to lead a 29-member volunteer team, it said.

Gerson built a database that listed five potential candidates for each of the top 125 Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions. None of the potential candidates was contacted directly, but Gerson's team performed preliminary vetting for most of them, the report said. Five McCain aides went through the security clearance process, according to the report.

Planning wasn't 'valued'

Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who has long chronicled presidential transfers of power, said of the last one: "What I think was missing in this transition -- and it's not the fault of either campaign -- was a climate where early planning was valued. Instead, early planning was viewed as arrogance."

Gerson said that, while he agrees the transition process should be formalized, "it still should be stealth and kept very private, because the last thing that you want is people participating in the campaign trying to focus on the transition and trying to get jobs in the administration."

Gail Lovelace, a General Services Administration employee who coordinates transition issues, agreed that campaigns face a tricky balance between public and private transition matters.

"We just need to make sure that whoever is running needs to be getting ready for it, because 77 days is all they have to go from one administration to the next. That's no time," Lovelace said.

Stier also acknowledged the balancing act but said official Washington needs to ensure that a new president can govern from the first day.

"Literally part of the challenge is that nobody pays attention to the challenge until the transition is sitting in front of the nation," Stier said. "By then, it's just politicized. What we really need to see is attention beforehand."

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