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Presidential Transitions Are Not Too Long

Yes, lame-duck presidents can create trouble—but incoming administrations can’t be assembled overnight.
January 18, 2021
Presidential Transitions Are Not Too Long
So much to do, so little time. (Photo by Jim Watson / AFP / Getty)

Donald Trump’s reprehensible actions in the two months after it became clear that he lost the 2020 election—obsessing about conspiracy theories, lying repeatedly, unleashing manic legal teams, and ultimately summoning the mob that attacked the Capitol—have caused some observers to suggest that the transition between presidential elections and inaugurations should be shortened to prevent future lame-duck arsonists from doing such dangerous things.

The transition used to be six weeks longer. Until the Twentieth Amendment was adopted in 1933, new presidents were inaugurated on March 4. While the states were considering that proposed amendment in 1932, the country had vivid evidence of the need to shorten the interregnum: The transition from Herbert Hoover, defeated that November, to Franklin Roosevelt, coincided with an economic crisis that Hoover worsened by peevish failures of leadership.

Still, the current gap betwixt presidential administrations—of between 73 and 79 days, depending on when election day falls—not only can be an opportunity for making mischief, as we have seen with Donald Trump, but also seems long by international standards. After the Conservative party won a plurality but not a majority in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons in 2010, the five days of interparty haggling it took before David Cameron became prime minister felt like an eternity. More typically in the U.K. and other Westminster-model parliaments, a new prime minister forms a government the day after an election—as with Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997.

Of course, in such parliaments, the new prime minister is usually the leader of an opposition party, which keeps him or her engaged with national debates and the state of the country. More importantly, in the United Kingdom, as in countries with similarly structured parliaments, only cabinet ministers are political appointees. In the U.K., even deputy ministers are civil servants. This means that the personnel recruitment necessary for a transition is limited to perhaps a couple dozen people.

By contrast, a new president of the United States makes about 4,000 appointments, some 1,250 or so requiring Senate confirmation. Recruiting candidates, vetting them, and interviewing them can take a long time. This task is so enormous that even the seventy-some days between the election and the inauguration are insufficient, which is why the Presidential Transition Act, the 1964 law that provides funding for an incoming president-elect’s transition efforts, was amended in 2010 to start providing support months earlier—to both nominees after their parties’ conventions.

Of course, even that longer lead time will not necessarily guarantee a successful transition. In 2016, Donald Trump put Chris Christie in charge of his transition team. But Trump never took the transition seriously, reportedly saying to Christie at some point in 2016: “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.” Soon after the 2016 election, however, Trump fired Christie—presumably because Jared Kushner held a grudge against Christie for having prosecuted Kushner’s father—and all the binders with personnel picks that Christie had prepared “were apparently thrown out the day I was terminated,” he said.

This was a major factor, in addition to the administration’s generally chaotic nature and Trump’s incompetence, that so many positions remained vacant for months or years into the Trump administration. In fact, more than three dozen positions were never filled.

So what is a transition for? There are four main things that a candidate-turned-president-elect must accomplish before taking the oath of office.

1. Recruiting Candidates: The transition team, which ideally will have begun compiling lists of potential officeholders long before the election, can start recruiting in earnest after the election results are clear. Typically, for each position, there will be a shortlist of a few potential candidates, which can push the total number of people considered to work in an administration into five digits. Finding thousands of people who are suited for political office, vetting them, and interviewing them takes a lot of time and resources. For appointees who need security clearances, there can be additional headaches. And nowadays transition teams screening candidates for office have to pore over their social media feeds to look out for potential embarrassments.

2. Bringing the Team Up to Date: For presidents-elect who haven’t served in national politics—governors, generally—the transition can be an important opportunity to bone up: to learn about world affairs, including through regular intelligence briefings, or to study in greater depth important matters in domestic politics. Even for candidates who served in the federal government—as, say, senators or vice presidents—the two previous years of campaigning can leave them rusty on important matters of domestic and international affairs. And it’s not just presidents-elect: their staffs, too, often need the time to study and prepare.

3. Becoming Familiar with the Executive Branch: Since the end of World War II, only Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and Joe Biden have come to the presidency with prior experience as civilians in the executive branch (although Johnson, of course, didn’t have the luxury of an orderly transition). So most new presidents are new to the branch of the government they will be presiding over, as are many members of their teams. And there is a lot to know about how the executive branch actually functions. In many cases, it will take political appointees some time to learn even the basics (like where their offices are, where the bathrooms are, where to have lunch), let alone the details of bureaucratic culture and processes and personalities at the institutions they will be working at. In a smooth transition, some incoming appointees will even have time to meet with their peers in the outgoing administration to seek advice.

4. Meeting with Congress and Talking with Foreign Allies: During the transition, the president-elect’s schedule is packed with phone calls and meetings with world leaders, as well as meetings with congressional leaders. This is especially important for new presidents with little national and international reputation—like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—as it allowed them to start forming relationships with allies and potential collaborators. These phone calls and meetings are also an opportunity to start negotiating an agenda. Mario Cuomo frequently said that “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose”—and the transition is when the big campaign promises begin to turn into matters of cooperation, compromise, and deal-making.

While the Trump transition was botched because of a failure of leadership, the Bush-Cheney team faced a different challenge in 2000-01: More than a month of the expected transition period was eaten up by the Florida recounts and litigation. Thus, at the beginning of the administration, as one staffer put it, Bush’s team looked like “a bunch of chickens running around without heads.” Tevi Troy, a Bush administration veteran, writes:

Staffing decisions had to be made late in the process; one relatively innocuous—but nevertheless telling—consequence was that, on the first day of the administration, there was no White House phone book listing the assorted staffers and where they could be located. First-day Bush staffers recall very senior aides wandering around the White House complex trying to find the colleagues they needed to consult with in order to resolve important issues.

To make matters more complicated, the Bush team, like all new administrations, had prepared a policy agenda that it wanted to push while it had the momentum of the new presidency. This occupation with the tasks of policymaking and governing had the effect of slowing down the rate of appointments to fill those 4,000 slots. The understaffing also meant that the staff was overworked, further contributed to the problem. The 9/11 Commission found that this was a factor in the government’s inability to foresee the terrorist attacks of 2001:

The dispute over the election and the 36-day delay cut in half the normal transition period. Given that a presidential election in the United States brings wholesale change in personnel, this loss of time hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.

But even presidents-elect whose transition processes went smoothly have not entered office fully staffed up because two months is just too short a time to do all that needs doing. Since the passage of the 2010 law providing earlier transition resources to nominated presidential candidates, only the Romney 2012, Clinton 2016, Trump 2016, and Biden 2020 campaigns have been able to avail themselves of the longer lead time. Romney and Clinton both lost, so their preparations were for naught. The Trump campaign failed its transition spectacularly. And the Biden transition team, while coping valiantly with pandemic-related restrictions, lost weeks because of funding that was slow in coming, not to mention having to deal with the distraction of Trump’s post-election campaign of lies.

Which is to say that, even a decade later, there still has not yet been a real test of whether the 2010 law pushing the start of the transition period back to the conventions actually helps.

This much we can say with confidence, however: The transition period between presidential administrations is not too long—if anything, it is too short. Calvin Coolidge is said to have joked that if the federal government, with the exception of the postal service, were to vanish, the average American wouldn’t notice for six months. This might have seemed plausible in his day, but it sure is not true today. Given the vast powers and responsibilities of the executive branch of the federal government, no one should be surprised that the transition between administrations is arduous, and no one should try to make it still more difficult by lopping off even a single day.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.