Lessons from Past Presidential Transitions: Organization, Management, and Decision Making

By Burke, John P. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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Lessons from Past Presidential Transitions: Organization, Management, and Decision Making


Burke, John P., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Beginning with the Carter effort in 1976, the four transitions that have occurred to date share common elements:

* transition planning activities undertaken before the November election,

* organization of a postelection transition,

* creation of teams directed at policy planning and the crafting of a presidential agenda,

* establishment of groups concerned with gathering information on particular agencies and departments,

* attention to cabinet and subcabinet appointments, and

appointing and shaping a White House staff.

Yet there has also been significant variation in how each of these transitions went about these tasks, which received more emphasis than others, and what was accomplished successfully and what was not.

Perhaps most significant in differentiating successful from unsuccessful transitions is the degree to which these tasks were recognized as contributors to presidential decision making and the formulation of successful policy outcomes. In the 1992 Clinton transition, for example, cabinet appointments quickly became a major preoccupation to the detriment of selecting a White House staff and figuring out how it would be organized. Clinton would not settle on the appointment of his chief of staff until mid-December, and a number of top staff members were not selected until a week before inauguration day. In the absence of staff personnel decisions, little could be done to figure out how "people" could be organized into an effective "process" that could flesh out campaign promises into concrete and politically feasible policy proposals. Not surprisingly, a number of policy missteps emerged that would affect this administration once in office: the handling of the gays in the military proposal, lax vetting of some nominees, and a perception that Clinton was willing to cave in too easily to a variety of constituency groups, thus calling into question his commitment as a "New Democrat."

But Bill Clinton does not stand alone in his troubles. Jimmy Carter wanted a leaner, more collegial White House staff than had been the case during the Nixon years, plus a more significant role for his cabinet. Yet during his transition, little effort was made to plan for how those hopes might operate in practice. As a result, Carter ended up with a staff that became compartmentalized rather than collegial and a cabinet that never functioned effectively as a group, and he found himself overburdened in policy detail.

George Bush's broader experience placed him in a better position than "political outsiders" such as Clinton and Carter in making personnel choices. Yet Bush's transition efforts, likewise, sometimes backfired. Although some of his key assistants were appointed early on, the selection of the presidential assistant for domestic and economic policy was not made until early January, and some of the units that were central to the marketing and selling of the administration's proposals (the White House political affairs, public liaison, and intergovernmental affairs offices) were placed at lower organizational levels in the White House staff than had been the case under his predecessors.

For Ronald Reagan, the transition provided a clearer recognition of the organizational needs that would fit with his style as a decision maker as well as more attention to decision-making processes. But it also crafted a process that left Reagan largely uninvolved in the early stages of policy formulation and demanded a high degree of trust and cooperation among those to whom much had been delegated (Ed Meese, Jim Baker, and Michael Deaver most notably).

Each of these transitions also provides positive legacies. Carter recognized, as none of his predecessors had to date, the complexity of the transition process and the scope of activities now required for that effort. What his transition broadly undertook in 1976 would set the parameters of the task for his successors.

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