That news was breaking as we were putting the finishing touches on the latest installment of “The Next Four Years,” a podcast I am hosting about the upcoming administration. You can listen to it exclusively on Amazon Music.
For this episode we keyed in on what Biden hopes to — and reasonably could — accomplish in his first 100 days in office. I spoke with Tevi Troy, a former White House aide who has worked on two transitions and is author of “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump,” about the history of internal disagreements within presidencies.
I called Troy again Tuesday morning, hours after the GSA authorized the transition.
“I was just reading President Obama’s memoir, where he talked about how gracious George W. Bush was at the switch-over,” he told me. “And he said he made a pledge to try to be equally gracious. So I liked the whole pay-it-forward idea, and I hope that this one will be an anomaly and we can have more paying it forward in the future.”
Below are some interesting questions and answers from our conversation Tuesday, and from the one we recorded last week.
Q: What do you think is unique to this transition now that it is underway?
A: Beyond the delayed start itself, one unique thing about this transition is that it is the first Democratic one taking place since the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010. The idea of that law was to get a transition started earlier, in part so that a post-election delay would not impede the important work that needs to be done. This transition will help show if the idea worked. Another unique aspect is, of course, the pandemic. The new team will have to be fully up to speed on the tools the federal government has to fight the virus on Day 1.
Q: Do you expect greater challenges given that Trump’s aim was to dismantle government to some degree?
A: I don’t think the outgoing administration’s policies will make the incoming transition harder per se. I think that it just gives the new team more targets for it to try to change or undo.
Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re on transition teams?
A: The biggest mistake is to focus on yourself and your own personal situation, as opposed to trying to get the larger operation ready. But also I think that what we need to do now is get your team together so that you can hit the ground running and be clear what the policy priorities are. This is especially true of soon-to-be President Biden.
I haven’t seen any mistakes thus far, but let me just give it an amazing example of, I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but maybe a miscalculation in the Clinton transition in 1992. They just didn’t realize running it out of Little Rock, how small Little Rock was. So any time a senior person came through the Little Rock airport, all the reporters just staked out at the airport.
Q: What are some other consequences you’ve seen in the past from a chaotic transition process?
A: Well, I mentioned Clinton already, and I’m going to pick on him, but his campaign or transition was somewhat chaotic. And that carried over into the administration, and Dee Dee Myers, who was the press secretary in the Clinton first term, said that there was an article in the New York Times within 10 days saying that the Clinton administration is a failed presidency. Now she said that’s ridiculous that they were saying that in the first two to 10 days.
And it’s true. It was ridiculous to make that assessment that soon, but there was a sense that the thing was not working and it wasn’t operating, and they did have to make some significant personnel shifts very early on in the Clinton administration, including moving George Stephanopoulos out of his position as communicator to the press. And they moved him to a more internal advisory position. And they brought on David Gergen, who is an old hand who had served in multiple administrations, mostly Republican administrations. And so that shift occurred as a result of the initial chaos.
Q: Can you talk a bit about what’s at stake? If the current transition doesn’t go smoothly — we’re in a pandemic, there’s still some economic unrest — what could happen if things don’t go well?
A: We are in a very difficult situation these days with the pandemic, and the economy seems to be doing somewhat okay. But long-term, there’s real concerns about where the economy might be going, especially with the pandemic. So you want a president who can hit the ground running, who is ready to go with what needs to be done. So if the transition doesn’t go well and you don’t have your top people in charge, you really can’t start to get your policy initiatives in place. It takes a long time. The stuff is complex. There’s a whole bunch of different government operations — right? — that are taking place at all times, and you really need to get a handle on them from Day 1.