Tales of transitions past

September 16, 2016 Thomas van der Voort

Watch as leaders from the last five administrations recall the successes and failures of past presidential transitions.

Every new president begins somewhere—specifically, during the transition from candidate to president-elect and finally, on January 20th, to president. As part of the Human Ties celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities on September 16, the Miller Center’s First Year Project hosted five leaders from past administrations to offer their recollections and advice to the next commander and chief.

Following the 1980 election, Ed Meese headed President Ronald Reagan’s transition team. Meese was also Reagan’s campaign chief-of-staff, so for him, focus on the transition was minimal until the election was over. “In 1980 is was different than it is today,” recalls Meese, with Congress now providing support following the party conventions.

“In our case, we allowed no one to think about transition or moving beyond the campaign until election day because we wanted all their time, energy, and particularly their focus to be on winning the election, otherwise there’s no purpose to the transition, obviously.”

Melody Barnes served on the Obama-Biden Transition Project leadership team and described the 87-day period between the election and inauguration as, “the world’s largest M&A (mergers and acquisitions) deal.” Barnes included pre-transition planning as part of her campaign work, and notes that the Obama transition work began in June.

Making the most of most of the time was critical, Barnes says, because as you walk into your office on the first day of work, “literally, the phones were ringing. And it drives home the point: Government never stops.”

When John Bridgeland helped lead President George W. Bush’s policy transition team, controversy about the outcome of the 2000 election gave the new administration even less time to prepare for governing. But President Bush brought Senator Edward Kennedy and other Democratic leaders into the transition process, laying the groundwork for some early legislative success, most noteably No Child Left Behind.  “We began by listening. We built trust and relationships with people on both sides.”

Bridgeland also remembers—as does Barnes—a great bipartisan spirit of cooperation when the White House shifted from one party to the other.

Elaine Kamarck says President Clinton—as many other governors—didn’t realize how important, and time-consuming, military and foreign affairs would be, and his inexperience on the issue may have contributed to the ensuing controversy over gays in the military: "The world was a different place, and I don't think President Clinton or his very young staff, most of whom had not served in the military, had any idea what was coming at them."

But President Clinton did learn something from the Reagan administration’s painful battle with inflation, Kamarck says: “You do the hard things early, especially on economics, because the timelines are such that they don’t kick in right away, and you need them to be kicking in by the time of your re-election.” And it’s important, she adds, to use the “honeymoon period” to get something important done.

Ken Yale encountered a massive briefing book of domestic policy issues as he prepared for his role as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council for President George H. W. Bush. “It was page after page after page—this issue, that issue, that issue—still on the table for the domestic policy team,” he says, and the new administration couldn’t address them all.

“We had to pick and choose among the issues, and the first issues we decided [to address] were the environment and disabilities—the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

President Bush also faced a different challenge in assuming the presidency directly from the vice presidency: he wanted to chart his own course but not offend important members of his party or lose expertise developed in the preceding eight years. He managed to do this by changing some internal processes at the White House that matched his managerial style.