To answer this, we need to start in 1952 after Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency and prepared to take over from Harry S Truman. Because Truman had taken over mid-term upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death and because FDR has been elected to an unprecedented four terms, 20 years had passed since a complete transition had been necessary.
But first, why is a smooth, thorough transition important?
A better transition in 2000 may have led to a better response to 9/11 or stopping the attack altogether
According to George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Andy Card: “The 9/11 Commission had said if there had been a longer transition and there had been cooperation, there might have been a better response, or maybe not even any attack.” The time for transition was shortened due to long court battles and fights over hanging chads.
Coronavirus infections in the U.S. are higher than ever and Joe Biden will need the best informed response available
The 20th amendment and the growth of government
To say that the intervening 20 years had introduced hurdles to the process would be an understatement. FDR had grown the size and scope of government first, in response to the Great Depression, by a series of public works and social protections and second, by building a war machine in response to World War II. Truman had led the US forces of the UN response in the Korean War and would be handing over to Eisenhower both the war machinery and the war itself. Finally, the transition would be the first affected by the 20th amendment which, among other details, shortened the lame duck period between election and inauguration to two months.
The Presidential Transition Act of 1963
Eisenhower received a limited transition from Truman, but was the first U.S. president to hold cabinet meetings before inauguration. By the time Eisenhower handed off the presidency to John F. Kennedy, he had expanded on New Deal programs, especially Social Security, and, after watching the French Indochina War, anticipated a prolonged Cold War which led him to build up the military for nuclear deterrence and supplying or fighting in proxy wars. Eisenhower and Kennedy would come agree on the need for a codified Presidential transition, which gave rise to the latter guiding the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 through Congress. It would be signed by his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1964 after Kennedy was assassinated.
Its express purpose was the “orderly transfer of the executive power in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a President and the Inauguration of a new President.” The Act largely concerns the General Services Administration (GSA), which acts like a mayor for the other federal agencies. Importantly, the GSA gives federal office space to the incoming team and has the responsibility to ascertain the winner before it can release funds to the transition team, and, more importantly, give incoming agencies a chance to meet with their outgoing counterparts.
Obama additions to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963
That background out of the way, here are the legislative ways Barack Obama showed himself serious about a smooth transition.
Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010
This amendment directs the GSA administrator to provide transition services and facilities, including office space, equipment, and expenses, to candidates before a presidential election. And more:
** Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015**
This amendment directs the President to plan and coordinate activities to facilitate an efficient transfer of power to a successor President, including by: (1) not later than six months before a presidential election, establishing and operating a White House transition coordinating council; and (2) establishing and operating an agency transition directors council. And more:
# Obama pre-election actions toward transition
The Trump campaign met for the first time with the Obama White House for a two-day briefing on the transition process
The White House invited the Trump campaign to the first meeting of the Agency Transition Directors Council to review transition plans of each of the major executive departments
The White House, after several meetings over the previous months, started in-depth meetings to ensure a smooth post-election transition
Obama post-election actions toward transition
8 NOV. 2016
The day of the election
After the Pacific Time races were called around 11:30 p.m. local time, Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede the race
9 NOV. 2016
One day after the election had been called
The morning after, Clinton gave a concession speech
Shortly after Clinton’s speech, GSA Administrator Denise Roth ascertained the election results, This ascertainment allowed the Trump transition team expanded support including access to Office of the Director of National Intelligence briefings, additional office space, and
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter directed the Pentagon and related agencies to prepare for a new commander-in-chief and proceed with the transfer of power
10 NOV. 2016
Two days after the election had been called
Obama and Trump met for the first time for 90 minutes in the Oval Office
Biden met with Mike Pence
And Melania Trump met with Michelle Obama
15 NOV. 2016
The Obama White House and the Trump transition team enter into a memorandum of understanding, establishing the relationship between the transition team and the outgoing White House as required by the Presidential Transition Act. The Obama White House would provide knowledge such that the Trump White House nee Trump transition team would be able to get to work immediately after inauguration
28 DEC. 2016
midway through the transition
When asked by reporters whether the transition was proceeding smoothly, Trump replied: “Oh, I think very, very smoothly. Very good. You don’t think so?”
And later: “Our staffs are getting along very well. And I’m getting along very well with him, other than a couple of statements that I responded to and we talked about it and smiled about it. And nobody is ever going to know because we’re never going to be going against each other in that way. It was a great conversation.”
Trump Spokesman Sean Spicer echoed the statement, saying: “As the inauguration gets closer, both the current president and his team have been very helpful and generous with their time as far as the actual transition, the mechanics of the transition have gone, and I expect them to continue to speak fairly regularly.”
19 JAN. 2017
One day before inauguration
Pence, who chaired Trump’s transition team, saw the Obama transition as cooperative, hospitable, and collaborative, saying: “The cooperation that the outgoing administration has extended in this transition effort would make every American proud, And I know the President-elect has expressed his appreciation not just for the hospitality, but for the collaboration of this administration in supporting our team’s transition efforts, and I would reiterate that today.”
During his transition, President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team had 328 agency review personnel engage with 42 government agencies.
The Obama White House also hosted interagency emergency preparedness and response exercises. These exercises allowed the Trump transition team and the outgoing administrations to walk through a simulated threat to the homeland. During the Obama to Trump transition, one of the scenarios was a global pandemic that started in Asia and spread to the U.S
Through the years, Presidents and other lawmakers have recognized the importance of a smooth and thorough transition of power, and have responded with legislation writing the most important points into statute. For their part, individual administrations have near universally recognized the importance during an especially vulnerable period and set political differences aside to ensure that incoming administrations govern from a position of strength. As confirmed by the swift actions they took and quotes from Pence and Trump, the Obama White House was no exception.
My hope is that the Trump White House recognizes the importance of this responsibility and pays forward the respect his transition team was shown.