Modern Presidential Transitions: Problems, Pitfalls, and Lessons for Success

By Eksterowicz, Anthony; Hastedt, Glenn | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Modern Presidential Transitions: Problems, Pitfalls, and Lessons for Success


Eksterowicz, Anthony, Hastedt, Glenn, Presidential Studies Quarterly


In the first year of the Clinton administration, President Clinton's White House staff was engaged in a heated discussion of the administration's economic stimulus package and its plight in the Congress. While some White House staffers urged moderation and compromise with the Republicans over this issue, Senator Byrd (D-WV) was adamantly supporting the president's original position without modifications. In frustration the president exclaimed, "I don't know this place.... He's been around here almost as long as I've been alive.... How do I not go with him?"(1) The president was clearly frustrated and he would become equally frustrated when he discovered that his advisers failed to inform him of the effect of the discretionary budget caps negotiated in the 1990 budget deal on his economic investment plan.(2) The story is not unique to the Clinton administration. David Stockman relates the story of President Reagan's campaign promise to increase military spending. Upon entering office, Stockman quickly understood what effect the fulfillment of this promise would have on the budget deficit, for it would come after President Carter had already increased the defense budget.(3)

Newly elected presidents almost always feel frustrated and inadequate in their dealings with the Congress. Washington is unfamiliar territory for presidents, especially if their only experience was at the gubernatorial level of government. The key to a successful first year in the White House is advanced planning and learning during the transition period from one administration to another. This period lasts eleven weeks, just seventy-seven days. It is a frightfully short period of time to adjust to the Washington culture. Yet, failure to do so will inevitably result in policy failures for the president.

This article will examine the problems and pitfalls associated with modem presidential transitions. Our analysis will concentrate mainly on presidential transitions from one party to another, although we do recognize that there are unique transition problems involving presidents succeeding former presidents of the same party or same-party presidents inheriting the presidency either through death or scandal. First, we will present a useful framework for analyzing modem presidential transitions. Second, we will examine modem presidencies from Carter to Clinton and discuss just how they have grappled with the problems of transition. In this effort we will pay particular attention to the problems of foreign policy. Third, we shall draw a few lessons from this comparative review. Fourth, we shall catalogue some of the assistance available to presidents during the transition phase of governing. Finally, we shall describe the problems associated with this assistance and suggest reforms aimed at helping modem presidents complete a successful transition.

Modern Presidential Transitions: A Framework for Analysis

Richard Neustadt has warned of the perils facing incoming presidential administrations in their transition phase.(4) Most first-term presidents are new to the presidential policy process; thus, they are prone to be caught by surprise by events in the domestic or foreign policy realm. This is especially the case with successful presidential candidates who have campaigned as Washington outsiders. Second, most presidents will face pressures to act, perhaps in haste, to developing problems. New administrations face the pressure of time to achieve policy accomplishments with limited political capital. In fact, as Paul Light has warned, presidents must push their domestic policy agenda through the Congress before losing precious political capital during their first year in office.(5) Third, most presidents will face the problem of hubris, or the feeling that they or their administration know best how to organize and respond to policy problems.(6) This feeling of hubris can lead to a fourth problem of naivete concerning both the Washington policy and political process.

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Modern Presidential Transitions: Problems, Pitfalls, and Lessons for Success
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