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The Presidential Transition: What You Should Know

November 17, 2016

Donald Trump has won the 2016 Presidential election and will be the 45th president of the United States of America. The campaigning and election are now over and the all-important Presidential Transition has begun.  With two years of campaigning behind him and four years to govern ahead, the President-Elect must not fail to realize the importance of the critical two and a half months between the election and inauguration. This period we all know as the presidential transition, along with the election process and governing, are the three key markers of the American democractic process.  This transition is not just of the presidency but also of all government agency leaders who affect policy domestically and abroad, Congress and, most of all, the American people.  The presidential transition period is one of heightened excitement for the new administration.  It is the phase where one can carry the glow of election victory without the full-time burdens of governing--It is, known otherwise as the president-elect’s "honeymoon" period.

 

However, the presidential transition does not come without its political casualties.  For the losing side, the presidential election and transition directly and abruptly changes the lives of thousands of people who provide service “at the pleasure” of the President and to their country as political appointees.  For current Obama appointees the Trump victory and transition is a surprise, and can be an especially disorienting force to their lives and plans. I know this firsthand as a Bush appointee after the 1992 election of Bill Clinton.

 

On Election Day 1992, I received the news that I would lose my political appointment after President George H.W. Bush lost his bid for re-election.  This was not an expected outcome. President Bush had cast the invading forces of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in a relatively quick and casualty-free war. His democrat opponent (Bill Clinton) was a governor of the poorest state in the union who brought the political baggage of spousal infidelity and sexual harassment allegations to the race.  At one point, President Bush’s approval rating was over 90%. Chances seemed good that he would be re-elected. In fact, things seemed to be so good that I began to think about what job I might have in the next administration.

 

What few experts envisioned was that a third party candidate (Ross Perot) would suck up 30% of the vote!  Most of those votes would have gone to Bush. That 30% take-away resulted in the election and subsequent presidency of Bill Clinton.  Suddenly, I found myself in the position of having no job and no plans for the future. I was also saddened because I believed that President Bush deserved another four years. This was a scary time of personal, political and financial turmoil. However, it turned out not to be the end of the world. I gathered myself, looked for a silver lining and moved on. I not only survived, but found a way to thrive.

 

Fast forward twenty-four years and we have another unexpected presidential victory.  Many members of the Hillary Clinton campaign and some from the Obama administration had career transition plans based on a Hillary victory and now will soon find themselves without a job or a plan in place to obtain one.  To compound the situation, they sincerely believe that Hillary deserved to win. I can empathize. I am a Republican who has many Democratic friends.  I was happy that, immediately after the Trump victory, I was able to share my experience from 1992 with those who found themselves in the same emotional and practical shock of an unexpected presidential election loss and transition.

 

Both the Trump and Clinton transition teams opened their offices months before the election and began to organize their transition plans and strategies. During these first months of operation, because of the intensity of the campaign, candidate Trump had little time to give to the day-to-day operations of his transition office. However, once victory was assured, the attention shifted to, and is now focused directly on the presidential transition process. The power and importance of having control of the transition process became clear as the leadership of the Transition Team shifted to Vice President-Elect Pence with key roles given to Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump.  The Trump leadership knows that they have to get this right.

 

The important role the Transition Team plays in the American democratic process cannot be overstated.  They have the daunting responsibility of organizing policy and finding the best people to implement it.  Without the appropriate personnel, a presidency can suffer despite good policy and vision.  In addition, the outgoing and incoming presidential appointees must work together to smoothly share important information and advice.  

 

During this bi-partisan collaboration, “the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water” and existing productive programs should be maintained and enhanced. During the Bush-Obama transition in 2008, for example, Bush appointees spent days in the White House with the new Obama team explaining their personnel management techniques. President Obama staff adopted these successful strategies, which helped to develop a successful Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) at the Obama White House.  President Obama has asked his staff to maintain this same spirit of collaboration with the incoming Trump appointees.

 

To ensure a smooth and safe transfer of power, the next administration and senior level appointees need to be ready to lead and manage our government effectively on Day One.  This can only happen with an efficient and successful presidential transition.  The confidence of every American citizen in the new government grows with a professional and orderly transition process.  America’s international friends and foes focus on the presidential transition of power for signs of any potential weaknesses or strengths and hints of how the new American president may govern.

 

It is worthy to note that the zeal of getting the presidential transition right should be tempered with the fact that there is no way to develop a perfect presidential transition plan in two and half months. Plans may also change or evolve during the President’s term.  What is most important is to focus on the President’s top priorities and insure that they are highlighted, strategized and communicated clearly and effectively and to identify the most qualified people to implement them.

 

A smooth and orderly Presidential Transition process is an essential component for the success of the new President and, ultimately, for the nation overall.  Once the work of implementing a successful transition is completed, the new president and his team get one day to relax and enjoy the most pleasurable part of the transition process: the Presidential Inauguration ceremony, parade and celebrations.  After that, the real work begins.

 

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