The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five myths about presidential transitions

In fact, they can start before the General Services Administration gives its blessing.

President-elect Joe Biden and incoming first lady Jill Biden at the Korean War Memorial Park in Philadelphia on Veterans Day. Biden began planning for his transition in May. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Joe Biden and his team are preparing for the herculean task of taking over the enormous federal government. Any president-elect needs to develop a substantive plan of action, which derives from but is far more detailed than a platitude-filled campaign agenda. They do this via the presidential transition, a two-month sprint to get the new team ready. Over the years, transitions have changed, leading to misconceptions about how they work.

A transition requires an official GSA sign-off to begin.

By law, Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration, “must formally recognize Mr. Biden as the incoming president for his transition to begin,” the New York Times reported. (She has not yet done so.) “The transition process cannot formally begin until the head of the General Services Administration gives the green light,” according to the business daily Government Executive.

The truth is that a transition is about much more than getting access to each agency’s plans and paperwork, which the new team will have four years to assess and modify. Far more important is the hard work of vetting, selecting and prepping 15 Cabinet heads, about 700 Senate-confirmed nominees, 400 or so White House staff members and about 4,000 political appointees. Not all of these positions are filled during the transition, but the top ones are, and failure to do so can leave an administration behind at the outset. None of these things require the GSA’s sign-off.

Same-party transitions are smoother.

“Interparty transitions in particular might be contentious,” a 2017 Congressional Research Service report says. A famous example of a rough opposite-party handoff is the pranking of the incoming George W. Bush staff by the outgoing Bill Clinton team, which was frustrated that Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, lost the close and bitter election. There were even reports that Clinton aides removed the “W” keys from White House computers; whether or not that was true, the General Accounting Office found that “damage, theft, vandalism and pranks did occur in the White House complex’’ in that presidential transition. By contrast, “the transitions from presidents of one party to one elected from the same party have generally been smooth,” a UPI political analyst wrote in 2000.

But intraparty handovers, while somewhat rare, can be challenging as well. In the 1989 transition between President Ronald Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, many Reagan staffers were surprised to find themselves without jobs as Bush took a nonideological approach that contrasted with Reagan’s. One anonymous Bush transition official legendarily told The Washington Post: “Our people don’t have agendas. They have mortgages.” Another rocky intraparty switch was between the resigning Richard Nixon and Vice President Gerald Ford in 1974. Their two staffs distrusted each other and had difficulty working together. Some Ford people complained that they could not even get badges that would allow them to work in the West Wing. Ford aide Robert Hartmann recalled: “We had no time for transition. One day Ford was vice president and the next day he was president. If anybody didn’t like it, tough.”

Transitions start after the election.

“The day after the election, transition begins in earnest,” Voice of America reported in 2016. In the United States, the Canadian website iPolitics says, “the work of the transition teams is concentrated during the 75 days between the election and Inauguration Day.”

But a smart campaign begins this process long before winning. Jimmy Carter started planning his transition in April 1976, around the time of the Pennsylvania primary. George W. Bush started even earlier, asking his prep-school friend Clay Johnson to think about his transition in 1999, before any voting took place — and long before it was clear that Bush would be the Republican nominee. Biden, for his part, began the work in May of this year.

The first presidential transition legislation, enacted in 1964, called for some government funding for transitions after the election. This was an important development, as John F. Kennedy’s transition cost more than $300,000 — about $2.6 million in today’s dollars — paid for by a combination of Democratic National Committee funds and his own. The 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act funded a transition and provided office space for both major-party candidates as soon as they accepted the nomination at their conventions. (This is fine when one candidate is a challenger and one an incumbent, but the 2016 campaign had two challengers in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The GSA put both staffs in the same building, which led to some uncomfortable elevator rides.)

Transitions show how an administration will operate.

Bill Clinton’s chaotic transition led to early speculation that his would be a “failed presidency,” as his press secretary Dee Dee Myers recalled in an interview for PBS’s “Frontline”: “You know, ten days into Bill Clinton’s first term.” Michael Lewis’s book “The Fifth Risk” established the now-conventional wisdom that the chaos of Trump’s presidency was foretold when aides tossed the briefing books that had been prepared for his transition head, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

It’s true that the inexperience of the Trump team amplified the chaos during the handoff and afterward. He had only 28 Senate-confirmed positions filled by the end of his first 100 days, compared with Barack Obama’s 69. George W. Bush had 35 after a chaotic and truncated transition that lost 36 days to election uncertainty. One staffer recalled the Bush transition being filled with “a bunch of chickens running around without heads,” and the administration started before the White House could manage to print internal phone books that would allow staffers to call one another. Yet Bush had a fairly buttoned-down, process-driven administration, albeit one that faced more than its share of crises.

On the other side of the ledger was the former senator and vice president Nixon, who knew what he wanted in his government and had his transition operate accordingly. Brookings Institution scholar and former White House aide Stephen Hess wrote that “Richard Nixon’s transition was one of the smoothest in recent memory.” We know how that turned out.

Biden faces a very difficult transition.

“This is going to be the most hostile and tumultuous presidential transition in modern history,” Georgetown scholar Rebecca Lissner told CNN. “It could be the bumpiest transition of power in almost 100 years,” KCTV News reported.

This needn’t be the case. Other presidents have entered office during crises, including Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great Depression and Barack Obama in the 2008 financial crisis. More than any other period in a presidency, the transition is about the incoming team. A presidential administration is constantly buffeted by external events, be they bureaucratic or legislative resistance, international developments, or media revelations. A transition is largely an internal exercise, and the results are up to the incoming president and the surrounding aides. If the transition works well, it’s a tribute to them, but if it falters, there is no one to blame but themselves.

Twitter: @tevitroy

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.