Presidential Transitions: Draped in Political Razor Wire

Presidential Transitions: Draped in Political Razor Wire
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The current crop of GOP presidential candidates appears so loath to value Washington experience or to hail the mission and output of the federal bureaucracy that D.C. insiders are worried.

Some think the anti-Washington mood within conservative ranks could discourage Republican candidates from heeding nonpartisan advice to focus by spring on the specifics of leading the government, even before nominees are crowned.

A long-recognized political phobia among candidates in both parties about appearing to measure the Oval Office drapes before Election Day has fused with 2016’s voter angst about Washington’s dysfunction and “rigged” practices. Those who value a planned and measured leap from one administration to the next say they want to “detoxify the risk.”

“Contempt for and ignorance of the traditional levers of government, and contempt for those with experience using it seem to be an advantage in the Republican primary these days,” former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said Jan. 20 during an event sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition.

“I’m concerned, at least in my own party, that ‘measuring the drapes’ will still be a political liability and that some of the campaigns may feel it’s their responsibility to remain as ignorant as possible. I hope that won’t be the case, but there is a risk,” said Bolten, who served President George W. Bush as he bequeathed two wars and a dire financial crisis to his successor.

Thomas “Mack” McLarty, who was President Clinton’s first White House chief of staff, said he believes three factors make early planning to govern not just advantageous but essential. He pointed to the terror attacks of 2001 (“after 9/11, the world changed”), the technological and information changes in and out of government over the last 25 years, and the wealth of transition guidance and “best practices” available to all aspiring presidential candidates.

The Partnership for Public Service is one entity urging transition improvements and offering expert advice, and there are others, including the National Academy of Public Administration’s Transition 2016 Project; the White House Transition Project, in existence since 1997; the Miller Center’s First Year 2017 Project at the University of Virginia; plus the General Services Administration, tasked by law to fund and support presidents-elect and their teams before Inauguration Day.

Even the legislative branch, accused of complicating rather than smoothing presidential transitions because of Senate confirmation hurdles, has embraced innovations proposed after recent transitions, passing bills that were signed into law in 2000 and 2010. And last summer, the Senate approved a measure that would require outgoing presidents to appoint a transition council six months prior to an election to coordinate with candidates and to ready the executive branch for anticipated changes. That bill, which would in effect compel the earlier planning that good-government experts laud, is in limbo in the House.

While candidates are supposed to envision the mechanics of the job they aspire to perform after Election Day, outgoing presidents know in chilling detail what “drinking from the fire hose” feels like on Jan. 21, after inaugural parades and celebratory balls give way to actual decision-making.

Bush, who came into office after a suspenseful 2000 recount that ended in the Supreme Court, understood the discomforts of assuming power under difficult circumstances, especially after a change of political parties. Staffers new to the Bush West Wing on Inauguration Day discovered what those that came before them found: bare offices with nary a paper clip in sight and no helpful hints about the telephone system. The National Archives and Records Administration takes custody of the outgoing president’s data and materials, and workspaces stripped of their placard-sized photos of the president and devoid of important-looking binders sporting the presidential seal look unimpressive.

Bush tasked Bolten in December 2007 to launch what the president hoped would be the most thorough transition outreach to an incoming president and his team in history. Bush briefed then-Sen. Barack Obama in person about a handful of sensitive topics, and the pair earned public kudos for their cooperation at a time of turmoil and economic crisis.

Obama, now a year away from passing the baton, has yet to organize his own White House effort to extend a helping hand to his successor. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently told RealClearPolitics the president has not tapped him or anyone else to shepherd a transition effort. Obama is not likely to focus on the process for several months, McDonough said.

“In candor, right now we’re just doing a lot of paper development in the White House. I’ve not talked to the Cabinet about this. … We’ll begin transition planning in earnest in early spring,” he said during a Jan. 13 media roundtable hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “The president hasn’t put a finger on exactly who will be in charge, and we’ll present him with a couple of options.”

One of Washington’s leading transition experts was in the room as McDonough spoke, and she later said Obama appeared to believe that taking less than a year to plan for the hand-off would be sufficient.

“I was surprised that they hadn’t decided who was going to lead the transition,” presidency scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, author of 2015’s “Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power,” said Wednesday. “A president’s signal is very important, and it’s a signal that should happen early.”

Launching a transition team also helps presidents organize their own thinking about what they’ve completed, and what they’re leaving undone. And the project helps the American people understand in what ways experience and preparation impact effective governance. “I think the public largely understands the need,” McLarty said.

Obama has said repeatedly that he expects to be succeeded by a Democrat. He’s made no secret of his support for Hillary Clinton, whose agenda tracks his own. Her years in law, as a New York senator, candidate for president, and secretary of state under Obama enlarged her familiarity with Washington and how it operates. She often tells voters that she participated in her husband’s policymaking, forged alliances in the Senate, and advised Obama on international policy in the White House Situation Room.

And when she was first lady, she researched and approved plenty of White House redecoration projects, but claimed (even as the daughter of a curtain manufacturer) no role in selecting the golden Scalamadré silk installed around the Oval Office windows in 1993.

Whether measuring drapes or not, Clinton has said she would want her transition advisers in place if she’s on the way to securing the Democratic nomination. She envisions taking advantage of the nuts and bolts of governance, not dismantling the machinery or starting anew.

“I want to really think hard, if I do get the nomination, right then and there, how we organize the White House, how we organize the Cabinet, what’s the legislative agenda,” she said during a CNN interview Jan. 11. “The time between an election and an inauguration is short. You can’t wait,” Clinton added. “You can’t take anything for granted. You have to keep working as hard as you possibly can, but I think it’s important to start planning because we know what happens if you get behind in getting your agenda out, in getting your appointments made. You lose time, and you’re not doing the work that the American people elected you to do.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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