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9/11 improved presidential transitions

The 9/11 attacks exposed the vulnerabilities involved in presidential transition — even months after the inauguration.

George W. Bush

This is the fourth of four posts examining the evolution of presidential transitions. Click here for the third part.

Presidential transition has changed dramatically over the past several decades, as the demands on the presidential office and on the executive branch have vastly increased. What was once an informal process over a few months, involving a small number of people, is now one that takes years and includes thousands of career civil servants as well as political professionals.

The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks demonstrated the need to improve the transition process further, after many top national security positions remained unfilled nearly eight months after Inauguration Day, because of the time-consuming nature of obtaining security clearances.

In the face of this challenge, Congress enacted the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which enacted many of the recommendations of the Kean-Hamilton 9/11 Commission. The act provided for pre-inaugural security clearances for those persons who might serve in top foreign policy positions. Major party nominees could also request clearance for members of their transition teams that needed access to classified information.

Shaped by the chaotic atmosphere of 2000-’01, President George W. Bush’s administration began its preparation for the transition earlier than any prior administration. White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and Deputy Office of Management and Budget Director Clay Johnson (the same man who ran the 2000 Bush transition) led planning starting in late 2007.

Johnson, who headed the President’s Management Council, set transition priorities for executive agencies. He later provided the incoming transition teams with a list of 150 positions that needed to be filled as soon as possible. Bolten attempted to reduce “midnight” regulations passed in the last months of the administration. He later ordered political appointees to submit letters of resignation. The Partnership for Public Service held a conference in May 2008 to discuss presidential transitions that included government officials, academic experts, and representatives of the major-party campaigns. (See Martha Joynt Kumar’s Before The Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power, chapter two.)

Once it became clear that Arizona Sen. John McCain and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama would be their parties’ nominees, transition officials began working with campaign staff before the conventions. Figures in both campaigns signed agreements with the General Services Administration giving the transition teams access to necessary information. Obama began transition planning in the spring of 2008, relying on Pete Rouse and Chris Lu, two members of Obama’s Senate staff. (Rouse had previously worked for Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle).

Once Obama became the presumptive nominee in June, his transition team grew to include many veterans of the Hillary Clinton campaign, with John Podesta, former White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton, serving as chair. Podesta had headed the Center for American Progress, and CAP personnel were heavily involved in the transition effort. The Obama team sought out advice from those involved in previous transitions, including Harrison Wellford, who had worked for both Carter and Clinton. Lu served as the main liaison with the Bush White House. Jim Johnson, a Washington lawyer who had managed the Kerry transition in 2004, provided the Obama team with material from that effort and from the 2000 Gore transition.

McCain had a group of six people handling transition issues: campaign manager Rick Davis, campaign counsel Trevor Potter, former Navy Secretaries John Lehman and William Ball, personnel recruiter Russ Gerson, and lobbyist William Timmons. Ball and Timmons, both based in Washington and both high-level veterans of Republican administrations, were generally the most active members of the team.

By October, a transition coordinating council was bringing together top White House and Cabinet officials within the administration. The Obama transition staff created agency review teams to gather information from executive agencies, and to select potential nominees. McCain’s operation focused on developing a database of potential appointees and on building a budget that a president-elect could submit in February 2009. The transition team drew from policy professionals, many of whom had personal ties to the candidate. Since Bush-to-McCain would have been a same-party transition, the McCain team could have drawn more heavily on the resources of the sitting administration.

After Election Day, members of the Obama campaign joined the transition team. Between a financial crisis and two ongoing wars, cooperation between the incoming and ongoing administrations was essential. Obama met regularly with Cabinet members, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson.

Given the pressures of the financial crisis, the two administrations worked together on a series of critical decisions, most notably the handling of the auto bailout. Policy working groups developed initiatives in seven different areas. Ten agency review teams produced information on agencies and departments, with a focus on decisions facing the president-elect. Obama spent much of November making personnel decisions, assisted by Podesta, Vice President-elect Biden, and incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. He moved rapidly to fill the White House staff; Emanuel’s appointment was announced two days after the election. Most other key positions were filled by Thanksgiving. Obama announced most of his Cabinet nominations in December. (See Kumar, pages 112–136.)

Many observers praised the 2008-’09 effort. For once, a sitting administration committed wholeheartedly to the transition. Both nominees, but especially Obama, allowed their transition teams to engage in extensive pre-election (and even pre-convention) planning. The two administrations worked together to meet the challenge of the greatest economic crisis in decades. The full resources of the federal government were brought to bear, with transition planning beginning more than a year before Election Day.

While the Bush-Obama transition was generally considered to be the best-managed yet, it still faced some bumps in the road. Treasury Secretary nominee Tim Geithner faced criticism over a failure to pay his Social Security taxes while working at the International Monetary Fund. Bill Richardson and Tom Daschle, both nominated for Cabinet positions, were forced to step aside due to ethical problems. While the Obama team moved quickly to fill White House and Cabinet positions, it was slower to name sub-Cabinet appointees.

Congress acted twice during the Obama administration to institutionalize the transition process. “Ready to Govern,” a 2010 report by the Partnership for Public Service, offered many recommendations that influenced these pieces of legislation. The Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010 established that certain transition assistance would go to major party nominees before the election. (The act also provided for help to certain minor party candidates.) It recognized that presidential nominees had long been conducting informal pre-election transition planning, even without the aid of the General Services Administration.

The act also sought to institutionalize many of the practices that the George W. Bush administration took of its own volition. It authorized the creation of a transition coordinating council, composed of high-level executive branch officials chosen by the president, as well as an agency transition directors council.

The Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 required presidents to create these entities. The act also mandated that representatives from both major campaigns serve on these committees in an advisory capacity. By September 15, agency heads must designate qualified career employees to serve in an acting capacity during the transition for each critical noncareer position in the agency. By November 1, the campaigns must complete memoranda of understanding with the General Services Administration. (See Kumar, chapter two.)

Traditionally, administrations have been loath to assist their opponents in preparing for a potential transition that would only occur if the current president were defeated for reelection. The 2012 election saw a new approach. That summer, the Romney campaign created a Readiness Project led by former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, which moved into GSA-provided office space in downtown Washington. Eventually, 600 people worked on the transition effort — a striking change from the era when pre-election planning amounted to a couple of trusted friends of the candidates discreetly drawing up lists of potential Cabinet picks.

While both parties admitted the awkwardness of the situation, representatives of the Readiness Project and of the Obama Administration signed a memorandum of understanding preparing for a potential transition. While the Romney takeover never came to fruition, the very fact that it existed shows how seriously transition planning is now taken.

So far in this election, the public is primarily relying on media reports and press releases from the Clinton and Trump campaigns regarding the status of the transition projects. The Clinton and Trump transition are based in the same office building at 1717 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, in Washington, one block from the White House.

We know that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is running Donald Trump’s transition, which includes a series of policy task forces. He has allegedly met with financial services lobbyists and told them the transition is considering 400 people so far for administration positions. After some hesitation, the Trump transition has attracted a number of Republican insiders, ranging from Ed Meese (who ran Reagan’s 1980 transition) to a variety of conservative think-tankers.

The Clinton-Kaine Transition Project is chaired by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and includes a variety of figures who are close to Hillary Clinton, veterans of the Obama administration, or otherwise well-connected in Democratic politics. The project’s executive directors are Ann O’Leary, who had worked for Hillary Clinton both in the Senate and in the White House, and Edward Meier, who served under her at the State Department. Clinton has chosen longtime Democratic operative Leah Daughtry to direct her personnel operation.

Given historic lows in trust in government, it is in the public interest for both campaigns and the Obama administration to take more proactive steps to inform the public and voluntarily embrace reforms that Congress has not yet mandated.

The takeaways

Some aspects of presidential transitions have not changed substantially over the past few decades. Transitions are times of hard work and packed schedules. The key players in transitions are usually of the president-elect’s party. Some may be longstanding figures on the national scene; others may be personally close to the incoming president. Given the thousands of positions a president must fill, personnel remains one of the most important tasks facing the new administration. Particularly before the election, the transition process remains mostly out of the public eye.

But in other ways, the process has changed substantially. Transition simply begins much earlier than it has in the past: There’s still a rush after Election Day, but now it comes after years of planning. For some people, such as those at the Partnership for Public Service or the General Services Administration, transition has become a full-time, year-round job. (For a more detailed discussion of the issues facing the relationships between outgoing and incoming administrations, please see this new document from the Congressional Research Service.)

There is now more institutional memory: Some figures have participated in multiple transitions, while academics such as Martha Joynt Kumar and John P. Burke have studied the process for decades. The roles played by the outgoing administration and by career civil servants have increased. A process that was once highly informal and improvisatory is now institutionalized, with parameters set by law.

There are also new concerns. What sort of access will go to Super PAC donors who may have given $1 million or more? The Trump transition team has already announced a private briefing for donors about its operations.

The trend toward professionalization and institutionalization we have documented could be furthered by providing for the preservation of transition documents as presidential papers within the National Archives. Currently, many of these are not formally archived. Similarly, while presidential transitions see many informal, sensitive discussions that are appropriately kept private, they also produce documents that should eventually be made available to historians, researchers, and other members of the public.

Sunlight has issued principles for transparency in the transition that we hope both campaigns will consider and adopt this fall. We hope that the American public will be better informed about the state of this important aspect of the democratic process through its careful implementation.

This post is the fourth of a four-part series on the evolution of presidential transitions. See here for part three.

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