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With White House Help, Clinton And Trump Start Transition Planning

The process of transitioning from one presidential administration to another is complex and starts months before voters even pick the next president.
Karen Bleier
AFP/Getty Images
The process of transitioning from one presidential administration to another is complex and starts months before voters even pick the next president.

Now that the political conventions are over, it's time to start thinking about the transition to the next president.

Yes, really.

As of Aug. 1, the federal government is making office space available to representatives of the Clinton and Trump campaigns to start making plans for taking over in January. If this seems a bit early, those who have been there say it's not.

"This is the most complicated takeover, not only on the planet, but in history," says Max Stier, president of the Partnership For Public Service.

When the new president is sworn into office next January, he or she may face enormous challenges, not just in the domestic and international issues that must be tended to, but in getting an administration in place to deal with them.

Stier says the government is "an entity that consists of 4 million employees when you both count the civilian and military folk," with a budget of $4 trillion, "hundreds of operating units," and one that addresses "pretty much every critical problem that exists in this country and globally."

Waiting until the 73 days between the election and the inauguration to get started is too late, says Stier. "There is no way you can be ready to take over our government unless you start way before the election."

We had built a great ship, it just never sailed.

Congress agrees. Legislation passed in 2010 authorized the government to help launch the transition process after the political conventions. So now, both candidates will receive government provided office space, IT support and what Stier says are "all the fixings" needed to set up a transition team.

It hasn't always been this way. The first meeting between President Eisenhower and President-elect John F. Kennedy didn't come until almost a month after Kennedy's election. Until recently, transition planning had been a less extensive, even underground process, says former Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who sponsored the current transition law, and who, as chief of staff to Vice President-elect Biden worked on the Obama-Biden transition team.

"And the reason they had to be underground," Kaufman says, "is because it was a political reality that looking at how the transition worked showed an overconfidence that was just politically a gigantic negative for any of the candidates engaged in it."

The transition act helped end the "measuring the drapes" stigma as Kaufman calls it.

The first campaign to take advantage of it was Mitt Romney's in 2012. Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt led the "Romney Readiness" team, producing a playbook and a very detailed plan of action. Leavitt says, "In essence, we built a federal government in miniature."

One of Romney's campaign promises was to build the then-stalled Keystone XL pipeline. That would have required participation of a number of different federal agencies. So, Leavitt says, "If you walked down the hall in the transition office there would be a Department of State, a Department of Treasury, a Department of Interior, a Department of Commerce, an EPA, and it would be staffed with people who were knowledgeable about the issues and in most cases had worked there before."

Of course, the Romney team never got to implement its plans. "We had built a great ship," Leavitt says, "it just never sailed."

There have been good and bad transitions. One of the worst, according to Stier, was the handoff from President Reagan to his vice president, George H.W. Bush. "There are multiple reasons for that," Stier says, "including expectations of people who think they're going to stay and they're not asked to."

By contrast, the transition between the administration of George W. Bush and President Obama is regarded as one of the most successful. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a press briefing that it is "one of the reasons that President Obama holds President Bush in high regard."

For months, senior officials at the White House "have been engaged in planning, interacting with senior officials at a wide variety of government agencies to begin preparing now, months before the actual election, to ensure that that smooth transition takes place," said Earnest.

The White House says the president's chief of staff called the Clinton and Trump campaigns last week to emphasize Obama's commitment to working with both teams in a nonpartisan manner to ensure a seamless transition.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.