The Washington Post

Why Mitt Romney was smart to name the head of his transition team now

Mitt Romney recently named Mike Leavitt to head his transition team. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a number of reasons to be confident about his prospects. Friday’s disappointing jobs number creates another economic obstacle for President Obama. An escalating crisis in Europe could help drive the world into another global recession — good news for no one, but particularly troublesome for his opponent. Recent polls show Romney neck-and-neck with the president, and his favorability ratings jumped in a survey released Monday.

And so it may come as little surprise that Romney has named the head of his transition team, who will help the Romney campaign set up his administration in the event he wins the election. Former Utah governor Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Bush administration, has been named to help the Romney team select cabinet members and agency heads, develop an agenda and priorities for the incoming administration and ensure as smooth of a transition as possible. The move is reported to come notably early in the campaign; President Obama, according to news reports, did not name John Podesta to the role until August of 2008.

I say good for Romney. Yes, there are sure to be plenty of cries of measuring the drapes and counting the chickens before they’re hatched. And surely, the earlier formation of the team is likely driven by 2010’s changes to the Presidential Transition Act, which strongly encourages candidates to start transition teams well before election day by instructing the General Services Administration to offer the campaign a range of government services before the election or inauguration.

But it’s also a sign that the Romney campaign understands the complexity of the possible transition upon them. When you stop and think about it, even six months is an extraordinarily short period of time to prepare for such a monumental leadership change. Not only must a new president put together a senior team of advisers and cabinet members, many of whom may not have served in the executive branch of government — or in Washington at all. A shift in leaders of different political parties also creates an enormous sea change that reshuffles leadership and priorities at hundreds of federal agencies.

At the same time, were he to win, expectations among Romney’s supporters will demand immediate action. Not only does the economy shorten the time Romney has to make good on campaign promises; he is actively promoting a “Day One” mantra about all the changes that will immediately take shape under a Romney presidency. (Good luck with that.) But even if immediate change isn’t easy, putting together a leadership transition team as early as possible could help jumpstart the process.

Consider what happens in a leadership transition of a major corporation. Well-run succession plans often mean little in the way of strategy change. Senior teams typically stay in place, the new CEO often hails from the inside, and institutional knowledge runs deep. The stakes are lower. The number of people affected is far smaller. And yet, the transition and preparation period can run a year or more.

Comparing a major corporation to the immensity of the U.S. government may not be the best analogy. But it’s a reminder that the change that can take place in a presidential election is monumental in scope, and that no amount of planning is too much. Romney is wise to get this process started now.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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