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How the presidential transition process has evolved over time

Dwight Eisenhower conducted the first modern presidential transition. But tensions with the ongoing Truman administration hampered his efforts.
Dwight Eisenhower conducted the first modern presidential transition. But tensions with the ongoing Truman administration hampered his efforts.

For much of the nation's history, transitions between administrations have been characterized by informality, in areas ranging from record-keeping to disclosure. As the roles of both the presidency and the federal government have expanded, however, presidential transitions became more institutionalized.

Over the course of the 20th century, two World Wars, a New Deal, and the Cold War radically increased the demands on the executive branch. In the 21st century, presidential transitions have become increasingly elaborate operations that involve appointees from the outgoing administration, staffers from both major party campaigns, and thousands of career civil servants. Career personnel in the General Services Administration, the Office of Government Ethics, and the National Archives and Records Administration now play increasingly important roles.

For a behind-the-scenes view of the last transition in 2008-2009, watch the video from the General Services Administration embedded below.

What follows is a short history of how presidential transitions have evolved over the past seven decades, including relevant legislation that has codified aspects of the process, providing funding and staffing for each campaign. I will present it in four parts during this week.

Given the increased institutionalization of the transition and the significant equities the public has in ensuring safety and effective governance are maintained throughout, the Sunlight Foundation has laid out principles for the transition that, if properly implemented, will add transparency and accountability to a highly complex process that merits it. We hope that both this narrative and document are helpful to public understanding.

Transition in the "good old days"

Prior to World War II, presidential transitions were informal and leisurely.  Until the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1933, Inauguration Day was March 4, giving the president-elect five months to prepare for his new office. The relatively intimate scale of the federal government allowed for a more relaxed approach to staffing top jobs than prevails today.

Aside from some speculation about the Cabinet, there was no pre-election planning. It was customary for the president-elect to take a weeks-long vacation after Election Day.  Presidents often remained in their old jobs until quite close to assuming the presidency, and usually spent most of the transition away from Washington.

For example, Woodrow Wilson continued as governor of New Jersey until a few days before his inauguration and conducted most official business in Trenton. Warren Harding returned to his hometown of Marion, Ohio, and held what was called a "political picnic" for a series of distinguished well-wishers.

Presidents were not expected to have a legislative agenda when they assumed office.  Not only did the federal government play a limited role in the lives of its citizens, but Congress took the lead in making public policy. (This section draws heavily on Laurin L. Henry's Presidential Transitions, especially parts two and three.)

The five-month interregnum usually saw little in the way of policy achievement. The old administration went through the motions of government. Congress held a "lame duck" session that generally accomplished little. There was no formal interaction between the outgoing and incoming presidents. The most important task was the selection of the Cabinet, which was usually left to the president-elect and his intimates, with some input from Congress and interest groups. Sub-Cabinet jobs could wait until after the inaugural.

Presidents-elect usually relied on a small circle of advisers while thinking about a new administration. These included personal friends, top campaign staff, major donors, and personnel from their previous position. President Franklin Roosevelt was able to draw upon some able subordinates who had served him as governor of New York. Some would eventually join his Cabinet or White House staff.

Congressional leaders and other political notables would drop by to see the president-elect and make plans for the future, but the level of discussion was usually general. National party committee chairs, usually hand-picked by the nominee, were primarily concerned with the lower-level patronage that mattered most to members of Congress and state party bosses.

These jobs were already of declining importance in the early 20th century, as the civil service came to dominate federal employment. But those decisions were usually made after the special session of Congress that the new president always called. The prospect of patronage gave him more control of his party.

Transitioning from the Great Depression

The transition between President Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt, however, took place during the Great Depression's darkest days. Given the widespread belief that the federal government had to act to resolve the economic crisis, Roosevelt became the first president-elect to develop a formal team of policy advisers. The so-called "Brains Trust" was made up of three Columbia University professors who would shape much of FDR's early agenda: Adolf Berle, Rexford Tugwell, and Raymond Moley.

This transition was also notable for the first attempt at official cooperation between outgoing and incoming administrations. With public trust crumbling, Hoover repeatedly sought to win FDR's backing for his actions to stabilize the economy. The president-elect was usually reluctant to go along, fearing that he was being exploited in support of policies that he did not necessarily endorse.

This first attempt at a more orderly transition would not be remembered fondly, but Secretary of State Henry Stimson and Secretary of the Treasury Ogden Mills did genuinely aid the new administration. (See Henry, chapter four.)

A new deal for transition

With the enormous expansion of the federal government under Roosevelt and the radical growth of the United States' world role, presidential transitions took on more professionalism. Decisions about lower-level personnel began to shift to the White House. Sub-Cabinet positions increasingly required technical expertise and a commitment to the president's agenda, not just years of faithful party work. The Executive Office of the President grew in the 1940s and 1950s, after its founding in 1939, with the creation of new entities such as the National Security Council and the Council of Economic Advisers. As such, management of the White House staff became a major task for incoming presidents.

In 1948, Republican nominee Thomas Dewey received the first national security briefings for a presidential challenger. Dewey also became the first candidate to engage in formal pre-election transition planning. Both the Bureau of the Budget (the predecessor to today's White House Office of Management and Budget) and the State Department prepared for a potential change in administration. A failure of transition planning, however, led to a much more elaborate effort at assisting an incoming administration.

In 1945, Harry Truman succeeded to the presidency on Roosevelt's death after just three months as vice president. President Truman, despite his public service in the US Senate, was ill-prepared for the demands of a White House whose powers had grown enormously during his predecessor's time in office. Most famously, Truman knew little about development of an atomic bomb by the United States until after he was sworn in as president, when he was informed by Stimson, now the secretary of war. This experience convinced Truman of the need for a more formal process to welcome the new president to the federal government.

In 1952, after deciding to seek reelection, Truman tasked the Bureau of the Budget with collecting information for the next president. Truman offered to brief the presidential candidates about what awaited them in the Oval Office. Democrat Adlai Stevenson accepted the offer, but Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected it, after a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings.

Campaign events subsequently alienated Truman and Eisenhower from each other, and their relationship would not recover for many years. Truman still briefed Eisenhower, however, after the election about the national security situation. Members of Truman's administration also cooperated with the Eisenhower team to help assure a smooth transition, with mixed results: The Republican Party had been out of power for 20 years, and many were deeply suspicious of the federal bureaucracy.

While the Eisenhower team proved to be reluctant in accepting the help offered to them by the outgoing administration, they did launch the first large-scale transition process. Headed by retired Gen. Lucius Clay and top Republican lawyer Herbert Brownell (both close associates of the president-elect), the Eisenhower transition employed more than 100 people in its headquarters in the Commodore Hotel in New York.

Clay and Brownell had begun planning for the Cabinet before Election Day, and were able to give Ike a list of recommended choices within a few weeks of his being declared the victor. In every case, he accepted his team's proposals. (Eisenhower was more personally involved in the selection of his White House staff). This speed allowed Eisenhower to make many key policy decisions with his new team during the Pacific crossing by ocean liner that followed his late-fall visit to Korea. (See Henry, chapters 30 through 38, and Carl M. Brauer's Presidential Transitions: Eisenhower Through Reagan, chapter one.)

A new frontier for transition

Given that Eisenhower was term-limited by the 22nd Amendment, there was plenty of time to plan the 1960 transition, which marked the first formal involvement of a think tank in a presidential transition. With a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, the Brookings Institution set up an advisory group of 14 former presidential advisors. Brookings's role foreshadowed that played today by groups such as the Partnership for Public Service.

The Eisenhower White House and the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns both cooperated with the Brookings effort, which produced nine confidential memos to the president-elect. Clark Clifford, a Truman aide who had become a leading Washington lawyer, served as Kennedy's liaison with the Brookings team and ran Kennedy's own pre-election transition planning.

Political scientist Richard Neustadt, who had just published his acclaimed work Presidential Power, prepared a memorandum that proved influential during the Kennedy transition. Kennedy created 29 task forces to prepare briefings on major policy issues that would face his administration. Two were headed by men who had been rivals for the Democratic nomination: Stevenson, a two-time presidential nominee, and Sen. Stuart Symington (D-MO). Appointment of such task forces became common in presidential transitions. (See Stephanie Smith's "Presidential Transitions," in Presidential Transitions: Backgrounds and Issues.)

Like many presidents-elect, Kennedy drew upon his campaign staff for the leadership of his transition. He also consulted to an unusual degree with members of his own family and with his many friends in the media. Veterans of the Truman administration, especially former Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett, also played significant advisory roles. Perhaps reflecting the narrowness of his victory, Kennedy appointed several nonpartisan or Republican figures to important positions in his administration.

While Eisenhower and Kennedy did not care for each other, their transition of power proved to be relatively smooth and cooperative. Kennedy was well aware of his predecessor's popularity and avoided any actions that would have provoked him to public criticism. (See Brauer, chapter two.)

The Eisenhower and Kennedy transitions were primarily funded by the national party committees and had relied heavily on volunteer labor. In 1962, the President's Commission on Campaign Costs recommended that federal funds be provided to cover transition costs, both to alleviate the financial burden on the party committees and to recognize the institutional importance of the process.

In 1963, Congress established a federally funded transition process with the Presidential Transition Act, which has been the basis for all subsequent legislation. It provided financial assistance, office space, and career staff support to the transition of the incoming administration. (The act also provided support for the ongoing president and vice president). Private funding was still permitted; in 1988, Congress imposed contribution limits and mandated the disclosure of major donors.

Nixon's transition

Reflecting both increasing professionalism from previous administrations and his own experience at high levels of government, Richard Nixon began transition planning weeks before Election Day. Businessman Ross Perot lent Nixon a couple of researchers for his pre-election efforts, who met with campaign staff periodically that fall.

Nixon was advised both by members of his personal circle (campaign manager John Mitchell, campaign chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, campaign advance chief John Ehrlichman, longtime Nixon associate Robert Finch) and by a few veterans of the Eisenhower Administration (most notably Brownell, who had served as Ike's attorney general).

A transition study conducted by Harvard's Institute of Politics gave the president-elect the excuse to have his first personal meeting with Henry Kissinger, then a Harvard professor, whom he offered a position as his national security adviser.

Nixon was the first president to receive federal funds for his transition: Previous efforts had been paid for by the national party committees, with some wealthy participants paying for their own expenses. While he benefited from the Presidential Transition Act, he also raised private funds.

The Nixon team had an amiable relationship with the outgoing Johnson administration. LBJ had begun planning for a transition that summer, an effort that produced a series of briefing books for the incoming administration. Recognizing the need for a more systematic search process, Nixon became the first president-elect to hire a professional recruiter.

The Nixon transition, however, had two problems that would haunt Nixon's presidency. Believing in "Cabinet government," Nixon gave his appointees great freedom in picking their subordinates. He soon grew frustrated when, particularly in domestic affairs, his administration seemed to be pursuing policies more liberal than its own president preferred.

Nixon would spend much of his presidency trying to gain greater control of the executive branch, adding to an atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue. (His experience would influence future Republican presidents.) Reflecting his distrust of both Cabinet and the career bureaucracy, Nixon oversaw a great expansion of the White House staff.

His longtime associates noticed another pattern: his tendency to give extraordinary power to a small number of staff, particularly Haldeman. When she learned that Haldeman would control her access to the Oval Office, longtime Nixon personal secretary Rose Mary Woods is alleged to have responded by uttering an obscenity to the president-elect, followed by a legendarily icy elevator ride at the Hotel Pierre in New York, where the transition was headquartered. Haldeman similarly sidelined several longtime associates with Nixon, who had known him since his days as Vice President (or even before).

While the disciplined environment kept the introverted Nixon from exhausting himself through personal interaction, it also contributed to the atmosphere of isolation and paranoia that spawned the Watergate scandal. (See Brauer, chapter four; James P. Pfiffner's The Strategic President: Hitting the Ground Running; and Charles O. Jones's Passages to the Presidency: From Campaigning to Governing.)

This post is the first of a four-part series on the evolution of presidential transitions. Check back later this week for more installments.