Perhaps the difference between campaigning and governing is never starker than in the months after a new president’s inauguration. Candidates spend many months touting what they would do if they win the White House, but not nearly enough time figuring out how to actually do it.
Being too presumptuous is not a good political look. Being well prepared is.
To help with that, the Partnership for Public Service launched the Center for Presidential Transition last week, one year to the day before the next president takes the oath of office.
“There is an expectation that the nation’s newly elected president will hit the ground running, but the transition of power and knowledge from one president to another has traditionally been rushed and chaotic, resulting in delays in filling key jobs, policy blunders and management missteps,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and CEO. “A lack of thorough preparation could put the nation in jeopardy and seriously impede the progress of a new administration.”
The center seeks to be the repository for presidential transition information. There is no single location for that now, leaving a gap in the body of knowledge about a critical governmental operation. The center will hold documents from previous transitions, offer guidance to candidates and work with outgoing and incoming officials to facilitate the transfer of power. For them, planning early is vital.
“The 77 days between the election and the inauguration are not enough time for an incoming administration to identify and vet their top management team or get up to speed on the complex policy and management issues they’ll face,” Stier said. “The result has been that every administration has started slowly and behind, negatively impacting policymaking and diminishing the capabilities of our government.”
Slowly — as in, incoming administrations on average have just 30 percent of their Senate confirmed slots filled in the first 200 days and there are 50 days between the nomination of a department secretary and the next agency appointee, according to transition center data.
Congress has provided some help. In 2009, it cut the number of Senate confirmed positions and provided office space and equipment for presidential and vice-presidential candidates before the general election. Last year, the Senate approved the Presidential Transitions Improvements Act, sponsored by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). It would require establishment of a White House interagency transition council six months before a presidential election.
Legislative actions can reduce some of the reluctance that candidates feel over appearing presumptuous about planning to govern before getting elected, Thomas “Mack” McLarty, who was chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton, said at a forum to mark the launch. But another panel member, Josh Bolten, chief of staff to former president George W. Bush, wasn’t so sure.
“Ignorance of the traditional levers of government and contempt for those with experience using them seem to be an advantage in the Republican primary these days,” Bolten said. “So I am concerned that at least in my own party that ‘measuring the drapes’ will still be a political liability.” He hopes the partnership’s transition project will help “detoxify that risk.”
The partnership isn’t the only one in the early-transition game. In addition to preparations by federal agencies, the National Academy of Public Administration in May launched its “Presidential Transition 2016” initiative, which focuses on government management.
Stier noted that Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, called his transition effort the “readiness project,” which conveys a politically acceptable message. Despite any political risk that candidates feel, getting ready to govern early is essential. “They cannot succeed as presidents if they get elected,” Stier said, “if they haven’t done this early planning.”
David Eagles, the center director, offered recommendations for a smooth transition. Among them, candidates should announce a transition chairman by the first week of April; a campaign’s transition office should be established by May; the White House staff and the top 100 agency officials should be in place immediately after Inauguration Day; and 300 additional political appointees should be in office by the following August. A cooperative Congress is critical on the political appointee point.
Bolten recalled the close working relationship between the outgoing Bush team and President Obama’s, a glaring contrast to the anti-anything-Obama politicization that Republicans followed on Capitol Hill.
Bush set the tone when he told Bolten that the transition should be the best in history, Bolten recalled, adding that the Obama transition team was “exceptionally good.” Bush officials wanted to prepare the incoming team for “an attack on the homeland not just in year one, in hour one.” The good relationship between the teams was demonstrated when intelligence detected a credible threat on festivities the night before the inauguration.
“We had already made arrangements for the outgoing homeland security people to sit in the command center with the incoming homeland security people” the days of and before the inauguration, Bolten said, “because under our Constitution the outgoing folks were going to be disempowered at exactly noon on January 20th and somebody else was going to have to make the calls.”