Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Meeting the Freight Train Head On: Planning for the Transition to Power

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Meeting the Freight Train Head On: Planning for the Transition to Power

Article excerpt

Presidential candidates must plan now for how the winner and his staff will make effective use of his early days in office, according to present and former White House staff members interviewed for the White House Interview Program. The program is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and was designed by presidency scholars to smooth the path to power by furnishing incoming staff with substantive information about White House operations.(1) Seizing early opportunities eases confirmations, furthers the president's agenda, and affords a new team a valuable reputation for competence. That is the consensus of people who have worked in top White House positions over the course of the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations. In interviews for the project, many of the sixty-nine staff members expressed a common frustration with regard to the difficulty of organizing an administration when the White House they enter is whistle clean. It contains empty desks, no files from their predecessors, and a figurative in-box containing expectations that the president will deliver on his promises beginning the moment he enters the Oval Office as chief executive. To surmount these difficulties and get a fast start, candidates and their teams must plan early for governing.

Early Opportunities and Hazards

A new president entering office runs headlong into a series of challenges and deadlines critical to the definition of the new administration. "You have a series of action-forcing deadlines that come up against you like freight trains," observed Harrison Wellford, a veteran participant in the preparation of Democratic presidential candidates. "There are a whole lot of things that happen right there and for a brand new administration that hasn't done any of this before, these are intimidating challenges." Indeed, the deadlines are daunting. In the seventy-five days between the November 7 election and the inauguration on January 20, the new president will have to form his White House team, designate fourteen cabinet secretaries, deliver his inaugural address, present his agenda to the nation, and send to Congress a budget of around $1.8 trillion.

If the new president fails to use the transition interregnum wisely, he will risk committing some of the same mistakes that set back the new Clinton administration in 1993. "They didn't know who they were going to be working for," commented one Clinton aide about the White House staff. "They didn't know what they were supposed to be doing and, frankly, they were not even clear on the common agenda for the White House and the administration." Early missteps haunted the new Clinton administration well into its first term: a slow start on personnel recruitment, delayed designation of the White House staff, poor vetting of some nominees, failure to set priorities, lax handling of FBI files, and mishandling of the firing of career employees of the White House Travel Office. If one does not put together a good team during the transition, one loses a valuable opportunity to effectively govern, observed Roy Neel, who began the administration serving as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore. "You're going to stumble and you'll have huge lost opportunities because your first administration, the whole administration, is often defined by your mistakes and your successes in the first year." The Bush administration, for example, discovered right away that its momentum was slowed by problems associated with the nomination and failure to confirm John Tower as secretary of defense. "That was a serious bump in the road for us," commented a member of the Bush White House staff. "It was something, first of all, we hadn't anticipated. It preoccupied senior staff attention at the White House for probably two weeks when we couldn't afford to give it attention." It placed in jeopardy the administration's policy initiatives. The staff member continued, "If we had stumbled after the Tower problems, I think it would have taken us a long time to recover and it would have jeopardized any momentum we had on the policy side. …

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