Report: transition preparations should start right after nominating conventions
An independent report on last year’s presidential transition urges that future presidential candidates formally prepare for the transfer of power just days after the major party nominating conventions, a change that would allow more time for a process that White House veterans agree is too often squeezed in between Election Day and Inauguration Day.
The report, to be released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, includes a generally favorable evaluation of the Obama administration’s transition, and it reveals new details about Barack Obama and John McCain’s transition plans and their efforts to avoid appearing presumptuous during the final months of the 2008 presidential campaign.
“There are all kinds of things that happened that made this a good a transition,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership. Former president George W. Bush and his top staff members were committed to a seamless transition, and the Obama team was determined not to repeat the mistakes of Bill Clinton’s chaotic ascension, Stier said.
Even so, the transition process needs improvement, according to Stier and his colleagues at the Partnership, a nonprofit think tank that studies government operations and the federal workforce.
The report calls on Congress to require that major party presidential candidates publicly appoint transition directors within two weeks of the nominating conventions. The move would “take the transition out of the shadows, and remove the stigma of presumptuousness,” the report said.
The report urges incumbent administrations to ensure that federal agencies provide the candidates’ operations with regular briefings and secure office space and computers, as well as assistance with ethics and background investigations. Cabinet-level departments and agencies should appoint career officials to lead transition efforts in the absence of top political leadership, the report suggested.
By Jan. 1, it says, the president-elect should give the Senate the names of the 50 top nominees for defense, national security, economic and diplomatic officials, to ensure swift Senate confirmation and security clearances. And the Senate should commit to confirming the top 50 officials at the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State and Treasury on or shortly after the inauguration.
“The big point is, let’s set the objective of being able to govern by day one,” Stier said. We have to be able to do that in the world that we’re living in.”
The report’s authors interviewed top aides from both Obama and McCain campaigns as part of an effort to examine how they prepared for a possible presidency in the shadows of their campaigns.
Obama’s planning began in the spring of 2008 with a $400,000 budget, ten full-time staffers and dozens of volunteers, the report said. The Obama transition team, led by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, obtained security clearances for more than 100 people to work on national security and economic matters.
Transition staffers identified candidates for roughly 300 top jobs by Election Day, the report said. Obama’s team benefited from the work of Podesta’s Center for American Progress, which had published a book on how to run a Democratic administration, the report said. Aides also closely studied John Kerry’s unused 2004 transition plans, according to the report.
The White House declined to comment on the report. Podesta was traveling and unavailable for comment.
McCain started discussing transition matters with six close aides in the spring of 2008, but those aides considered aggressive transition planning premature, believing McCain would have an easier time succeeding Bush’s Republican administration, the report said. The campaign spent between $25,000 and $30,000 on transition costs and hired New York-based executive recruiter Russ Gerson to lead a 29-member volunteer transition team, it said.
Gerson built a database that listed five potential candidates for each of the top 125 Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions. None of the potential candidates was contacted directly, but Gerson’s team performed preliminary vetting for most people listed, the report said. Only five McCain aides went through the security clearance process, according to the report.
In an interview, Gerson confirmed the report’s version of events. “We didn’t want to do anything that distracted from the campaign, and we already had 40 people that we would have been able to get cleared immediately,” Gerson said.
Gerson said that, while he agreed the transition process should be formalized, “It still should be stealth and kept very private, because the last thing that you want is people participating in the campaign trying to focus on the transition and trying to get jobs in the administration.”
Gail Lovelace, a General Services Administration official who coordinates transition issues, agreed that campaigns face a tricky balance between public and private transition matters.
“We just need to make sure that whoever is running needs to be getting ready for it, because 77 days is all they have to go from one administration to the next. That’s no time. Adding some more time would be helpful, and even then you’re not adding that much time,” Lovelace said.
Stier also acknowledged the tricky balance, but said official Washington needs to ensure that a new president can govern from day one.
“Literally part of the challenge is that nobody pays attention to the challenge until the transition is sitting in front of the nation,” Stier said. “By then, it’s just politicized. What we really need to see is attention beforehand.”
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| January 12, 2010; 4:02 PM ET
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