In the summer of 1976, while covering Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, I visited an Atlanta bank building where the former Georgia governor had launched what was then an unprecedented activity for a White House hopeful, a transition office to plan the administration he hoped to lead.
Headed by Atlanta attorney Jack Watson and totally separate from Carter’s campaign, the “Carter-Mondale policy planning” office set up seven task forces to develop priorities and possible personnel options. Unfortunately, things didn’t go all that smoothly after Carter won, in part because of a power struggle between campaign manager Hamilton Jordan and Watson and also because the president-elect sought to micromanage appointments as he later did in other aspects of his presidency.
But Carter was a groundbreaker in transition planning as he also was in defining the modern vice presidency. In the ensuing four decades, the entire process has become institutionalized, with the government providing federal funds and office space for transition planning. Last week, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden named a long-time aide, former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman, to run his transition, and the Trump administration designated a General Services Administration official as its main contact.
Kaufman is no stranger to the process; he ran what proved to be an unnecessary transition for President Barack Obama during his 2012 reelection race against Republican Mitt Romney. Later, the most recent update of the federal transition law was named for Kaufman and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who was Romney’s 2012 transition chief.
Transition planning is one of those little noticed but vital governmental functions that can play a big role in an incoming administration’s success. While both outgoing and incoming administrations have a role, the main burden is on those who would assume management of the sprawling federal government. Each prospective administration can learn something from its predecessors.
In fact, If Biden wants a guide into how not to do it, he need only look at what happened four years ago. When Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidency, one of his first acts was to fire New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as his transition coordinator.
An experienced and knowledgeable public official who had been a U.S. attorney before becoming governor, Christie was an ideal choice. But Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, persuaded Trump to drop him and his team, presumably reflecting long-standing enmity over Christie’s prosecution of Kushner’s father.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence took over, but the real problem was they basically scrapped Christie’s material on prospective officials and actions and started over. Along with Trump’s predilection for instinctive selections, this produced a chaotic transition that led to a chaotic administration in which most of Trump’s initial choices for top posts didn’t last, including some who were insufficiently vetted and left under an ethical cloud.
The Trump transition was uniquely bad. Others had lesser problems; when Bill Clinton’s administration gave way to George W. Bush’s, incoming officials found some graffiti on bathroom walls, and some records and doorknobs missing. In many offices, the letter W had been removed from computer keyboards.
Eight years earlier, Clinton also encountered transition problems. But many stemmed from the president-elect’s impolitic comments and the inexperience of advisers staffing the first Democratic administration in a dozen years.
Both Clinton and Obama encountered some difficulties from inadequate vetting of prospective officials. Others ran more smoothly. The 1969 Nixon administration and the 1981 Reagan administration seem to have had fewer problems, in part because there were far fewer political posts to fill in those days and far less partisan acrimony surrounding the staffing process.
Because of Kaufman’s prior experience in transition planning, his choice makes a lot of sense for Biden, who has to assume from current polls there is a reasonable chance he’ll need it in the hectic 78-day stretch between November’s election and the presidential inauguration next Jan. 20.
Like any transition, Biden’s team will presumably focus on two main areas: personnel and issues. As a veteran officeholder with a wide range of political associations, Biden has indicated he may already have some idea who would fill top posts. He says he wants to build a deeper Democratic bench of younger officeholders.
That’s where the transition operation will be especially
invaluable, in providing names for the second- and third-level governmental positions. Trump left many of them unfilled, in part because, he said, there were too many of them. This has left something of a hollowed-out government, which has created problems in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The transition teams will presumably develop proposed agendas of administration priorities, both prospective legislation and executive acts, including some to reverse the current administration’s policies. The more detailed its planning, the easier it will be for the later decision-making by Biden and his top advisers and nominees.
Of course, the whole exercise might be for naught. But, if nothing else, the Biden transition operation will help to define a renewed sense of Democratic priorities.