Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S. Presidential Transitions Are Peaceful, If Not Always Well-Organized

U.S. President George W. Bush (left) met with President-elect Barack Obama in the Oval Office on November 10.
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., has participated in every U.S. presidential transition since the Eisenhower White House in the 1950s. For the current presidential election season, Hess has written "What Do We Do Now?"-- a guide to what happens when one commander in chief leaves the White House and a new one comes in.

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office on January 20, RFE/RL's Washington correspondent Heather Maher talked to Hess about the U.S. tradition of peaceful transition of power from one president to the next.

RFE/RL: What are some of the biggest challenges a president-elect faces during the transition period?

Stephen Hess: Well, disadvantages, of course -- it's a very short period of time. Remember, this is not a parliamentary system that usually has a shadow government in place; when the new prime minister takes over he pretty much has all of his ministers ready to go. In our country, our cabinet does not come out of the legislature, which means that the president of the United States can pick anybody -- we've got 300 million people -- he could pick anybody to be the heads of his departments.

So there's a lot more selection and with each selection, there has to be a great deal of vetting -- you have to find out as much as you can about this person because there might be some embarrassments -- there almost always is with at least one candidate -- before that person goes before the United States Senate for confirmation.

'What Is Most Important'

What are some of the top major decisions that an incoming president has to make?

Hess: The first decision he has to make is, what are his priorities? A person campaigning for the presidency has made many, many promises. He must hope he can honor all of them, but he certainly can't honor them all at once, and some are more important than the others. So it is very important for him to narrow these down into what is the most important. If he's to get a fast start, we have to know what exactly he is focusing on. That's perhaps the most important problem that he faces, initially.

RFE/RL: You've been involved in every presidential transition since President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Who's an example of a president who had a smooth transition, and also one who didn't?

Hess: The best one was Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Partly because he had been governor for two terms -- for eight years -- of California. California is really the only state that has the same sort of properties as the United States, only smaller, of course -- that is, a vast population, a diverse population, diverse agriculture, diverse industry, in his case, a legislature that was in the opposition party. So for eight years, [Reagan] had been operating, in a sense, in Washington writ small. That was very, very helpful to him.

The worst was Bill Clinton, who by contrast was a long-time governor also, but of very, very small one-party state. So the things that worked for him in Arkansas weren't going to work in Washington and almost had to be unlearned. And so he made some very serious blunders during his transition, which, in fact, in some ways, led to his losing control of the Congress after only two years.

'Working At The Wrong Things'

Some accounts of the Clinton transition say he acted a bit leisurely during the roughly three months between his win and his inauguration, that he didn't work hard enough.

Well, "leisurely" is not quite accurate; he was not a "leisurely" person. He was busy working; he was just working at the wrong things, in the wrong order. For some reason, he felt that he had to get his cabinet in place rather than his White House staff in place. So he spent all of his time sort of micromanaging the cabinet and, except for his chief of staff, it wasn't until five days before his inauguration that he appointed his key White House people.

Well, that's the reverse order, because you need the White House people in order to successfully appoint the rest of your administration because you need a personnel office that helps you pick it out, you need a counsel, a lawyer who helps you vet the people, test the people, you need congressional-relations people who help you get the confirmations through the Senate, and so forth. So he did it in the wrong order. It wasn't that he was on vacation; it was just that he didn't do it in the right way.

RFE/RL: That brings me to a question about how President-elect Barack Obama is doing, in your opinion. His first announced appointment was his White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

Hess: If he had read my book, he would see that the one appointment I tell a president-elect to make, even before he's elected -- although obviously, [don't] announce it to the public -- is his chief of staff. And he did that; that was the first appointment that he made. And the other appointments I think he's going to make very quickly are other key appointments on the White House staff, such as the press secretary.

RFE/RL: How is this transition, between Obama and President George W. Bush, different from the ones you've participated in? Bush's approval ratings have hit historic lows, while Obama's popularity is almost unprecedented for a politician. Plus, the United States is in its worst economic condition since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Hess: I think both of them, actually, are doing it very well. Bush has made it clear that he wants to be as helpful as he can to [Obama] -- I think he's done this more successfully than past outgoing presidents. And Obama has made it very clear, in his first press conference and otherwise, that he is not going to accept any sort of power-sharing arrangement. That's not in the Constitution. The mantra is that we have one president at a time.

So I think both of them understand their role, and I think it's working out successfully, and it could have been a difficult first decision to make on the part of Obama because there was so much pressure on him to step in, because, as you point out, situations were so grave, or grim.

'There Was Consultation'

Our listeners often live in countries where transitions of power aren't always peaceful or orderly. Can you talk about what happens if there's a real crisis, a foreign policy or domestic crisis during this changeover period in the United States? Would Bush consult with Obama?

Hess: It can work that way. I can't deal with a hypothetical situation because I don't know how they would deal with it. But, for example, when [President George H.W. Bush] was leaving, and Clinton was coming in, we had the situation in Somalia, where President Bush had sent Americans [troops] in there, on a humanitarian mission. He told Clinton what he was up to. Clinton gave his support for that. See now, that was an error, because it didn't work out well. But Clinton was stuck with it. Clinton was the one who somehow had to get American troops out of there eventually after the infamous "Black Hawk Down" situation. But yes, there was consultation.

RFE/RL: In 2000, when Bill Clinton was leaving office, it was alleged that some of his White House staff removed the "W's" from many of the computer keyboards in the offices -- to demonstrate their unhappiness with the controversial election that gave victory to Bush over Al Gore. Will we see any of those kinds of pranks with the outgoing administration?

Hess: We're not going to have anything like that. That is assured by the George W. Bush people. Remember, that was very unusual; it was not, in fact, settled -- that election -- until the Supreme Court met in mid-December. There's no sign on either side that there's unusual hostility, even though they're from opposition parties.

Occasionally, you have a transition that is a continuation. Ronald Reagan served for two terms, and the next president had been his vice president. But more often than not, after eight years, it switches, and it works peacefully, harmoniously, usually. And in fact there's almost a very exclusive club of presidents, including former presidents, in which ultimately the president calls on the previous presidents when he's in crisis or needs their help. And by and large -- with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who seemed to go his own way -- they do rally round.