Why Presidential Transitions Matter

Presidential Transitions
President Clinton and President-Elect Bush depart the White House for the Inaugural Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. Photo by David Scull and White House Photograph Office.

By David Marchick, Alexander Tippett, and Valerie Smith Boyd

Presidential Transitions in American History

Asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had created for the new United States, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic—if you can keep it.” Franklin’s prescience became evident when, 235 years later, President Trump refused to recognize the outcome of the 2020 election, jeopardizing the United States’ long-held tradition of peaceful presidential transitions. Viewed through the lens of history, the peaceful and successful transfer of power is a key ingredient in our democracy, a heritage that stretches back to our founding.

America has experienced some terrible transition periods – the time between the election and the inauguration. During the Buchanan to Lincoln transition, seven states seceded from the Union and key leaders in the sitting Buchanan government pledged their loyalty to the South. During the transition from Hoover to Roosevelt, the Great Depression peaked; banks failed in 25 states; Hitler came to power; and Japan left the League of Nations. Hoover’s view of the best way to cooperate with Roosevelt was to try to convince him to abandon the new deal. As a result, the Great Depression deepened. More Americans lost their houses; and recovery was delayed.

Contrast that with the cooperation between outgoing President George W. Bush and incoming President Barack Obama. That transition occurred at a time of two wars and a financial crisis. Bush, Obama and their teams cooperated on saving the auto industry, implementing the $700 billion relief package Congress passed, and saving the banking system. Most importantly, as then transition spokesperson Stephanie Cutter said in an interview, Obama and Bush wanted to work together to create confidence in markets and the recovery. That collaboration helped speed the end of the crisis and accelerated economic recovery.

Why Presidential Transitions Matter

The dysfunction of the 2020 transition was an historical aberration in our democracy. Transition planning has mostly been a non-partisan affair with outgoing presidents cooperating with the incoming. Our new book, The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of Presidential Transitions, examines how to make transitions smoother, better and faster. The book is largely based on interviews from the Partnership for Public Service’s podcast, Transition Lab. It is the first of its kind to outline the ways different teams have overcome the fragility and evolution of presidential transitions. Moreover, It covers each of the modern transitions since President Carter took office, as well as notable historic transitions like Buchanan to Lincoln and Hoover to Roosevelt.

Historical Lessons

Drawing on the rich history of transitions, as well as improvements in the art of transitions made in the last two decades, several fundamental lessons should be applied to improve future transitions and uphold their role in our democracy. For starters, candidates for the Presidency should start their transition planning early. They should begin no later than the spring of the election year. Candidates and their teams are often tempted to devote all their energy to the campaign. But without a dedicated transition effort, a winning candidate may find themselves scrambling come November. Next, transition teams should learn as much as possible about the successes and mistakes of their predecessors. Too often, transition teams find themselves reinventing the wheel and repeating costly mistakes. Taking stock of prior efforts allows transition teams to prepare more effectively.

Meanwhile, transition teams should prioritize above all the selection, vetting, and training of political appointees. These appointees are critical to advancing the president’s agenda. Few realize that a president must fill 4,000 positions. Indeed, 1,250 even require Senate approval. Finally, the incumbent administration must prepare to help its successor (regardless of party or faction) achieve the smoothest possible transition into office. Little gets accomplished without their support. In many ways, the outgoing administration is almost as important as that of the incoming one.

A Responsibility for All Americans

Most important of all is the engagement of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress. Together, all Americans need to understand and demand that the safety and services they expect from their government rely on an effective and peaceful transition of power. Benjamin Franklin knew that democratic traditions do not simply maintain themselves by some immutable law of nature. No matter how ingenious their design, the fate of our nation’s institutions rests ultimately upon the people’s active participation. All Americans have a responsibility to work together to preserve and to strengthen the peaceful transfer of power, so that it may endure for centuries to come.

David Marchick is the Dean of American University’s Kogod School of Business, the former Director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, and formerly Managing Director at The Carlyle Group. He is co-author along with Alexander Tippett, and collaborator A.J. Wilson of The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of America’s Presidential Transitions.

Alexander Tippett is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago and a co-author of The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of America’s Presidential Transitions.

Valerie Smith Boyd is the Director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition and leads the Partnership’s efforts to support transition planning by presidential candidates and second term administrations. She has had a long public service career, having served in the past three administrations in both career and political roles. She has degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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