How Do Presidential Transitions Normally Work?

Illustration for article titled How Do Presidential Transitions Normally Work?

Photo: The Washington Post (Getty Images)

The White House has seen a peaceful transitions of power between outgoing and incoming presidential administrations throughout history, regardless of any volatility gripping the nation. Passing the baton of executive power to a new presidential administration has been a hallmark of this country’s democracy; the White House is where presidential tenants temporarily reside, not a permanent residence occupied by a mortgage-paying, private citizen.

Advertisement

Given the Trump administration’s refusal to concede defeat after losing to president-elect Joe Biden on November 3, the centuries-long tradition has been thrown into unprecedented murky territory. Even under normal circumstances, in which the outgoing president isn’t stonewalling the incoming administration and making evidence-free claims of voter fraud, the peaceful transition of executive power is a complex process that needs close cooperation and mutual displays of good faith to succeed.

Here’s how the process has normally worked prior to 2020.

Advertisement

The incoming administration goes on a hiring spree

Though I hate the government-as-business analogy, it’s a useful concept to illustrate a challenge being tackled by the forthcoming Biden administration currently: Imagine if a corporation with upwards of 4,000 full-time, appointed positions needed to set up shop and start working on issues of international consequence within three months. That’s essentially what Biden’s campaign is doing as it evolves into the 46th White House administration.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, illustrated the scale of the task to NBC News this month. The report says:

Stier said there are 4,000 political appointee positions in government for which candidates need to be identified, vetted, interviewed and hired. FBI field investigations are required for some security clearances, while outside financial interests must be disclosed to the Office of Government Ethics. Approximately 1,200 of those appointees, Stier said, require Senate confirmation.

Advertisement

As reports surface of the Trump team’s radio silence as Biden knocks on the door, experts say the president-elect may be sworn into office with an administration still very much in transition.

The biggest hires are the cabinet officials

Of the thousands of appointees who comprise a president’s rank-and-file staff, about 30 of these are the most important. They’re White House cabinet officials and top staff, who assist the president in roles such as Chief of Staff and Attorney General, Energy Secretary, Labor Secretary, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Defense, and so on through the labyrinthine maze of U.S. government.

Advertisement

It’s not unheard of for certain agency leaders to stay on in their posts after the president who appointed them leaves office. For the most part, however, newcomers fill these posts and they’re subjected to background checks, because White House security clearance is granted conservatively.

Regardless of the staffing changes involved, it’s a process with massive implications for the incoming administration. As Stephen Hess wrote for the Brookings Institution:

It is a complicated business, largely conducted behind closed doors. Yet the selection of these 30 individuals determines, in large measure, the initial success and lingering impression of each presidency. An orderly transition shows Americans a presidency predisposed for success. But personnel mistakes, sometimes serious errors, can and have plagued chief executives even before they took office.

Advertisement

Close cooperation is paramount

Think of much of this process as a giant handover call as one person replaces a former colleague on the job. Except, unlike the mundanities that likely characterize your office job, issues of grave consequence such as national intelligence and security are being discussed.

Advertisement

William Cohen, the Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, told NBC News about calling up incoming Department of Defense Chief Donald Rumsfeld as the administration of George W. Bush prepared its White House tenure:

“The first thing I did was call his designated secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld. And I said, ‘Don, here are the 10 things I think you really have to look at when you come into this office. I’ll sit down and go over it.’ I made a list and it came out to 59. And I sat down with him for two days going over the 59 items that they really had to be concerned about,” he said. “And that’s traditional. That’s what a democracy is supposed to be about, that you want your successor to be in a position to protect and defend the interests of the American people.”

Advertisement

Of course, there’s some bureaucracy involved

The incoming Biden administration has to receive the green light from the General Services Administration. This happens when the department signs a letter of ascertainment, which formally initiates the process of transition by allowing the incoming administration access to various White House officials to conduct transition interviews, and to move into government offices. The letter also releases funds to expedite the transition process.

Advertisement

This process is governed by the 1963 Presidential Transition Act, which allows the GSA to “ascertain” who won the election and kickstart the transition process.

Usually, this process functions according to a routine plan, but the GSA is echoing the Trump-administration’s evidence-free bluster, suggesting that the election still has no clear winner. The impasse is stymying the Biden team’s ability to lay the groundwork for their eventual takeover of the White House, as the pandemic surges throughout the country and the economy suffers.

Advertisement

Still, the Biden White House will eventually assume power, and claims that it’s “charging ahead” with its plans despite the current gridlock.

Leave a Comment