The president-elect and his transition team must make effective use of the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day so as to "hit the ground running." 
The First 100 Days
Organization | Announcements
Nov. '08 | Dec. '08 | Jan. '09
How it was done in 2000
Race for RNC Chair
Obama-Biden Transition Project

Transition Nuts and Bolts
After the excitement of Election Night, it is time to turn attention to building a new administration.  In fact, preparation for the transition has been underway, quietly, for some time.  During the latter part of the campaign, both major candidates designate people to head up the transition planning, and the outgoing administration take steps as well.  

Now, however, it is the real thing.  Amid euphoria and exhaustion, responsibility looms.  Expectations are high.  The one-time candidate must assume a "presidential aura."  The president-elect and his transition team must make effective use of the time so as to "hit the ground running."

Charles Jones, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, has an interesting way of describing the process.  He notes that the campaign is centered around one person, the candidate.  After the campaign, the challenge is "attaching that person to the government."  The transition requires skilled management.  A certain amount of tension in this period is inevitable.  People who have worked hard on the campaign now see others being brought in to manage the transition.  There is much jockeying for position, various constituencies make their cases, and resumes proliferate.

The transition is not only the beginning of a new administration, but the end of an old one.  Handing over the reins of power requires considerable preparation on the side of the outgoing administration.  The new team must be briefed; records must be boxed and filed.  During its waning days, the outgoing administration will also endeavor to get as much done as possible, attempting to produce some last accomplishments to add to its legacy and making a final round of appointments, executive orders, regulations, and pardons.

The president-elect's Cabinet selections make headlines, but in the transition office the focus is on the nitty gritty of building a new administration.  Careful attention is given to selecting sub-cabinet personnel, learning about the pending issues in various agencies, and figuring out what policy initiatives to advance.  Myriad sub-Cabinet posts must be filled, including deputy secretaries and agency heads.  The White House staff also takes shape.  There is no shortage of aspirants for positions in the administration; the transition office will receive tens of thousands of resumes.  Care must also be taken to avoid early flaps which can undercut the fledgling administration's effectiveness and support.

Senate confirmation hearings of Cabinet nominees begin in relevant committees.  Each nominee will have a team to guide him or her through the confirmation process; there are policy, legal, press and congressional affairs aspects to consider.  Traditionally the Senate will not block a nominee unless he or she has ethical problems or is not qualified.

The Obama Transition
As noted transition planning had been going on for some months; transition co-chair John Podesta stated, "We really began in early August."  The day after Election Day, November 5, the Obama team announced its transition leadership, and the General Services Administration handed over the keys to office space in downtown DC; there is also space in the Federal Building in Chicago.  At a briefing on November 11, transition co-chair John Podesta said the Obama-Biden Transition Project, which is organized as a 501(c)(4), would ultimately have a staff of about 450 people and a budget of $12 million.  (The actual numbers were a bit lower).1  Congress appropriated approximately $5.2 million; the transition organization raised the remainder, eschewing money from federal lobbyists and establishing a $5,000 limit.  (Through January 15, 2009, a total of $4,490,065.76 had been raised from 59,609 donors).

Podesta promised "the most open and transparent transition in history."  As a start, he announced "the strictest, and most far reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history."  In early December, Podesta further announced a
"seat at the table" policy wherein "any documents from official meetings with outside organizations will be posted on our website for people to review and comment on."  The transition also reached out to Americans, for example encouraging people to submit their ideas through its website, and asking people to hold "health care community discussions" in the latter half of December.  The transition also held several rounds of "Open for Questions;" about 20,000 people participated in the first, 10,000 questions were submitted, and a million votes were cast on which questions to answer.  In the second round,103,512 people submitted 76,031 questions and cast 4,713,083 votes.

In terms of the type of people Obama would select, Podesta said that "excellence is the first criteria."
  Obama intended to reach out and have Republicans and Independents "not just at a token level," Podesta said.  "His commitment is to deepen that."  Podesta also said the Obama team would work to accelerate the confirmation process as much as possible.  While senior Cabinet level appointments draw all the attention, they may arrive at their departments and agencies to find sub-Cabinet positions unfilled.  "We need to do a lot better," Podesta said.  The transition team is determined to avoid embarrassments at the outset of the administration, and those seeking high-level positions had to contend with a questionnaire containing 63 questions grouped in eight broad areas.

In early and mid-November there was much speculation in the media about Cabinet appointments, and news reports based on "sources close to the transition" confirmed picks for a number of departments.  The first formal announcement of a Cabinet member, that of Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, came on November 24.  President-elect George W. Bush had started with Secretary of State (Colin Powell) while President-elect Bill Clinton had also started with Treasury (Lloyd Bentsen).  Obama wrapped up his Cabinet selections on December 19, within a month of his first announcement, naming Congresswoman Hilda Solis as his choice for Secretary of Labor, retiring Congressman Ray LaHood, a Republican, as Secretary of Transportation, and Ron Kirk at USTR.  Obama made these announcements in Chicago, holding well over a dozen press conferences including five in the week before Christmas; indeed Obama generally steered clear of Washington, DC until he moved to the city on January 4. 

While Cabinet picks drew the spotlight, agency review teams were working with designated officials in federal government departments and agencies "
to make strategic policy, budgetary, and personnel decisions prior to the inauguration."  Policy working groups were developing policies and plans in seven broad areas: economy, education, energy and environment, health care, immigration, national security, and technology, innovation and government reform.

The transition was also a time when the outgoing President and his administration wrapped up their work. 
President Bush established a cooperative tone for the transition early on [Executive Order: Facilitation of a Presidential Transition, Oct. 9, 2008)].  Assessments and reflections of the past eight years began to appear, and certainly for Bush the war in Iraq weighed significantly in many of these early attempts to guage his legacy.  Bush's job approval ratings remained mired at about 30-percent.  In mid-December, Bush paid farewell visits to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Bush's visit to Iraq was marred by the incident in which Iraqi TV reporter Muntadhar al-Zaidi hurled his shoes at the president during a press conference.  The economic crisis was another negative, and the final months of Bush's administration were marked by a number of major bailouts.  "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system," Bush stated in a December 17 interview with CNN.  An outgoing administration may also issue last-minute regulations; a report from the Center for American Progress identified several dozen such regulations and noted, "Many of these 'midnight' regulations actually represent deregulatory actions that weaken or eliminate safeguards protecting health, safety, the environment, and the public’s general welfare. (Reece Rushing, Rick Melberth, Matt Madia.  "After Midnight - The Bush Legacy of Deregulation and What Obama Can Do."  Jan. 22, 2009 [PDF].  More: 1, 2) and take actions that seem geared towards legacy building (3).  There are also pardons and commutations to consider; on January 19 President Bush commuted the prison sentences of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, two former U.S. Border Patrol agents involved in the shooting of a Mexican drug dealer.  Beyond policy, there were other more reflective moments.  On December 19, for example, President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush unveiled their portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.  On January 12 he held his last press conference (transcript).

Each transition occurs within a particular historic context.  The 2000 transition was considerably abbreviated due to the post-election battle over Florida.  The 2008 transition is occurring during a serious economic crisis and with two wars going on.  Indeed it seemed as if not a week went by without some piece of troubling economic news. 
Initially President-elect Obama and his team emphasized that there is "only one president at a time;" for example he steered clear of the G-20 summit organized by President Bush.  However economic problems continued to mount as November progressed, and Obama began to be more clear about steps his administration would take to address the crisis.  In his weekly radio address on November 22, Obama emphasized the need to act "act swiftly and boldly" and said he was setting his economic team to the task of coming up with an Economic Recovery Plan, "a two-year, nationwide effort to jumpstart job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy."  He set out more details in his December 5 radio address, setting out five points including "making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s."  Obama put out a specific number, saying the plan will "save or create 2.5 million jobs in the next two years."  In his January 3 radio address Obama called for "an American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan" which would "create three million new jobs, more than eighty percent of them in the private sector."  He also vowed "direct tax relief to 95 percent of American workers."  On January 8 Obama delivered a major speech on his plan at George Mason University.  Democratic control of both Houses of Congress should greatly enhance Obama's ability to enact his agenda, but congressional leaders have made it clear they will maintain their independence.  Very early on there was talk that President Obama might have major legislation to address the economic situation on his desk and ready to sign soon after he was sworn.  That gave way to a more realistic timeframe of mid-February.  The legislative process started off on January 15 when House Democrats unveiled an $825 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill.

Like the campaign, the transition drew praise for its smooth performance, although there were a few minor bumps.  The first concerned Obama's own Senate seat, from which he resigned on November 16.  Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, charged with appointing a successor, was arrested on December 9 on corruption charges including conspiring to sell the Senate seat.  Nonetheless on December 30 Blagojevich announced the appointment of former state Attorney General Roland Burris.  After initially declining to seat Burris, Democratic leaders ceded and he was was sworn in on January 15.  On January 4, Obama's Secretary of Commerce designee, Gov. Bill Richardson, withdrew from consideration.  Obama's selection of former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as director of the CIA encountered a bit of resistance over his lack of intelligence experience; this was compounded when he failed to notify Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, about the selection. 

For Obama and his family there were also more practical considerations of day-to-day life in a new city.  The family initially moved into the Hay-Adams Hotel and stayed there until moving into Blair House on January 15.  January 5 marked Sasha's and Malia's first day at school (+).  On January 11 Obama and his family visited the Lincoln Memorial.  On January 13 Obama and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty had lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl, a famous DC eatery.  And, during all this time, the big question on some people's minds was what kind of dog would the Obama family get? (1, 2)

Another question was how the Obama team would harness the grassroots energy and enthusiasm that manifested itself during the campaign. 
On January 17 Obama announced formation of Organizing for America.  This intial announcement had few details but said Organizing for America would work with the DNC "organizing in support of President-elect Obama’s agenda."  On January 23 Mitch Stewart, who served as campaign's Iowa caucus director, state director for the Indiana primary campaign, and Virginia state director in the general election, was announced as executive director of Organizing for America.

No Shortage of Advice
Every manner of interest group and a number of interested individuals weighed in on policies and priorities for the new administration. 

The "Your Seat at the Table" section of the Obama-Biden Transition web site includes a searchable list of hundreds of documents provided to the transition team by various organizations and individuals. 

A few examples...
-The ACLU issued a paper that lists many of the actions that the new president should take in order to decisively signal a restoration of American values and a rejection of the shameful policies of the past eight years.  The report, "Actions for Restoring America," includes recommendations for Obama's first day in office, first 100 days and first year.

-On Dec. 9, 2008 the Campaign for America's Future issued a "Main Street Recovery Program" which calls for a focus on public investments to stimulate the economy.  The plan states, "Three percent of GDP - about $450 billion each year for two years, a total of $900billion - should define the floor, not the ceiling, of what needs to be done."  One hundred and twenty seven economists, 27 major labor leaders and 59 public interest organizations signed a statement supporting the plan.

-In Nov. 2008 a coalition of over fifty groups issued a report "Advancing Reproductive Rights and Health in a New Administration."  The report states that, "Greater investment in reproductive health care will improve women's health, reduce the incidence of disease, and promote healthy childbearing.  It further notes that, " Skyrocketing costs and ideologically-driven government restriction have put reproductive health services out of reach for millions of women."  The report, at 26-pages plus appendices, includes steps for the first hundred days and the next four years.

-The Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute (GLLI), along with ten partner organizations, launched the Presidential Appointments Project, "a community-wide effort to identify strong LGBT candidates to serve in the Obama administration."  According to its website, "The Project will ensure that qualified, committed and talented members of the LGBT community have a fair shot at being appointed to important federal positions."  Interested individuals could submit an application and resume; GLLI thenn organized and categorized the resumes.  Finally, "When appropriate, it will meet with staff from the Obama-Biden Transition Project to review the most qualified applicants."

-On Oct. 1, 2008 the Partnership for Public Service issued a "ROADMAP TO REFORM: A Management Framework for the Next Administration" [PDF]  According to this report, "The key to improving our federal government’s operational health is a robust management framework — a roadmap to reform — that tackles challenges from federal budgeting to the use of technology to deliver services. The centerpiece of the president’s government reform plan needs to be a strategy to restore prestige to — and increase the capacity of — our federal workforce.  Each aspect of the “people piece” of government deserves more attention, but the new president’s management framework should focus on the talented, but underutilized, civilian workforce. The goal should be clear: to improve organizational performance." (press release)  also  July 24, 2008 press release

1.  See Kenneth P. Vogel.  "Transition cash spent vetting, jetting."  Politico, March 13, 2009.  Politico obtained details on how the federal funds were spent through a FOIA request with the GSA.  According to their review there were 329 staff.

Jan. 17, 2009-Transition co-chair John Podesta.
Jan. 14, 2009-Informal advice.
Jan. 11, 2009-Rally to close
n. 9, 2009-President-elect Obama holds press conference to announce his choices for DNI and CIA.
Jan. 7, 2009-President-elect Obama holds press conference to announce Nancy Killefer as Chief Performance Officer.
Dec. 19, 2008-President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush unveil their portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.
Dec. 17, 2008-Code Pink activists hurl shoes at President Bush figure.
Dec. 8, 2008-Attorney General-designate Eric Holder meets with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

More Resources

Stephen Hess.  Nov. 2008.  WHAT DO WE DO NOW?: A Workbook for the President-electWashington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

"In What Do We Do Now? Stephen Hess draws from his long experience as a White House staffer and presidential adviser to show what can be done to make presidential transitions go smoothly.  Here is a workbook to guide future chief executives, decision by decision, through the minefield of transition. You’ll have to start at the beginning, settling on a management style and knowing how to “arrange all the boxes.” Something as seemingly mundane as parceling office space can be consequential—hence the inclusion of a proposed White House organizational chart and floor plans of the West Wing. What qualities are needed for each job, and where are the best candidates for those positions most likely to be found? How can you construct a cabinet that “looks like America”? What Do We Do Now? is your indispensable guide through the thicket of these decisions."

Anne Joseph O’Connell.  Jan. 15, 2009.  LET'S GET IT STARTED: What President-Elect Obama Can Learn from Previous Administrations in Making Political Appointments.  Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

"If President-elect Obama follows the example of recent presidents, he will finalize his initial top picks for the cabinet and heads of other major agencies by Inauguration Day but will take much longer to select individuals for lower layers of the bureaucracy. Staffing these lower but still critical positions is remarkably challenging. It takes many months to get the first wave of appointees into the bureaucracy. Once filled, these positions do not stay occupied for long. And near the end of a term or administration, these political positions empty out yet again... This report analyzes comprehensive new data on delays in the appointments process as well as appointee turnover in Senate-confirmed positions in executive agencies over the past five administrations." +

Mark Green and Michele Jolin, eds.  Jan. 15, 2009.  CHANGE FOR AMERICA: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.  New York: Basic Books.

"Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President is a framework to help the next administration steer the government in a new, more progressive direction." 
The Center for American Progress is releasing this book on Nov. 12, 2008.  (John Podesta, one of the co-chairs of the transition is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress).  Co-editor Michele Jolin is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund; co-editor Mark Green is founder and president of New Democracy Project. 

Robert Kuttner.  Aug. 28, 2008.  OBAMA'S CHALLENGE: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative PresidencyWhite River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

"Barack Obama approaches the Presidency at a critical moment in American history, facing simultaneous crises of war, the environment, health care, but most especially in the economy. If he is able to rise to the moment, he could join the ranks of a small handful of previous presidents who have been truly transformative, succeeding in fundamentally changing our economy, society, and democracy for the better.  But this will require imaginative and decisive action as Obama takes office, action bolder than he has promised during his campaign, and will be all the more difficult given the undertow of conventional wisdom in Washington and on Wall Street that resists fundamental change."

Government Accountability Office: 2009 Congressional and Presidential Transition []

"Following each presidential election, GAO serves as a resource to assist with the transition to a new Congress and administration. On this Web site, using its institutional knowledge and broad-based, nonpartisan work on matters across the government spectrum, GAO provides insight into, and recommendations for addressing, the nation’s major issues, risks and challenges. Also located throughout the site are key reports for further research, as well as contact information for and video messages from GAO experts." >

U.S. General Services Administration: Presidential Transition []

The GSA provides a range of services for the President-elect and Vice President-elect as well as for the outgoing administration, including everything from office space to communications and computer systems.

see also: Office of Personnel Management--Transition to a New Presidential Administration

U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.  Nov. 12, 2008.  Policy and Supporting Positions.  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

"Published by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Government Reform alternately after each Presidential election, the Plum Book lists over 7,000 Federal civil service leadership and support positions in the legislative and executive branches of the Federal Government that may be subject to noncompetitive appointment, nationwide. Data covers positions such as agency heads and their immediate subordinates, policy executives and advisors, and aides who report to these officials."

United States Senate.  "Managing the Challenges of the Federal Government Transition."  Hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.  Sept. 10, 2008.

Out With the Old
Executive Office of the President
published Jan. 2009:
A Charge Kept: The Record of the Bush Presidency, 2001-2009
(129 pages)

published Dec. 2008:

Highlights of Accomplishments and Results of the Administration of George W. Bush
(50 pages incl. 26 color photos)

100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record
(40 page appendix)


General Transition
Martha Joynt Kumar and Terry Sullivan , eds.  Feb. 2003.  THE WHITE HOUSE WORLD: Transitions, Organization, and Office Operations (Joseph V. Hughes, Jr., and Holly O. Hughes Series in the Presidency and Leadership Studies, No. 13).  Texas A&M University Press.

John P. Burke.  Sept. 2000.  PRESIDENTIAL TRANSITIONS: From Politics to Practice.  Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Carl M. Brauer.  Dec. 1988.  PRESIDENTIAL TRANSITIONS: Eisenhower through Reagan.  Oxford University Press.

June 2002.  THE WHITE HOUSE: Allegations of Damage During the 2001 Presidential Transition (GAO-02-360).  U.S. General Accountability Office.

The Transition to Governing Project (AEI, Brookings and Hoover project on the 2000-01 transition).


Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action