Al Kamen's recent article in the Washington Post (July 20, 2012) on early presidential transition planning highlights many of the key issues facing the Obama and Romney campaigns. Kamen explains that, unlike previous presidential campaigns, the Presidential Transition Act of 2010 mandates that candidates thoroughly plan for a potential transition prior to the election. For a sitting president this raises some prickly questions about planning for a possible transition out of the White House while at the same time planning for a transition to a second term. Some historical context can help explain how transitions out of the White House have occurred in the past and inform what makes 2012 so curious.
Planning for the Expected Transition Out
The easiest transition out-of-office to plan for is the expected one. A two-term president, with limited concerns about who is running to replace him in office, faces none of the electoral anxieties that can make transition planning difficult. While "lame duck" status may hamper an ambitious legislative agenda, it does allow ample time for envisioning the presidential library and the proper cleaning out of desks. President George W. Bush began transition out planning in 2007, a full a year before his departure. According to research by Professor Martha Joynt Kumar, Bush directed White House Chief of Staff, Joshua Bolton, to work closely with the two campaigns, including signing a memorandum of understanding with transition representatives of both the Obama and McCain campaigns. Shortly after the 2008 election, President Bush announced: "For more than a year now, departments and agencies throughout the federal government have been preparing for a smooth transition. We've provided intelligence briefings to the president-elect, and the Department of Justice has approved security clearances for members of his transition staff." The seamless 2008 transition has been widely described as a terrific success based in part of the care show by President Bush and the ultimate close collaboration with the Obama transition team lead by John Podesta.
Planning for the Transition of One's Heir
Conversely, the prior 2 two-term presidents, Reagan and Clinton, waited until the final months in office to begin transition planning, but that was in part because they each had a sitting vice president seeking their job. Belated planning for an heir-apparent who wins their campaign -- this has happened four times in U.S. history: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George H. W. Bush -- often goes without notice, as a transition within party -- a "friendly take-over" -- is easier than across parties.
Late planning when the heir-apparent loses -- this had also happened four times in U.S. history: Breckinridge, Nixon, Humphrey, and Gore -- poses more substantial risks for a smooth White House transition and possibly even for the security of the nation. The most recent, Bill Clinton's transition out in 2000, was fraught by an extended election recount in Florida and nearly $15,000 worth of office equipment vandalism by chagrined Clinton staffers. Office hijinks notwithstanding, the failure to prepare to leave office could be disastrous if, during the transition period, the country faces a diplomatic conflict, as it did in early 1961 following the Bay of Pigs Invasion, or an economic calamity, as it did in early 2001 with the Western energy crisis, and of course again in 2008.
Planning for One's Own Transition Out
Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush share the uncomfortable legacy of planning their own transition out-of-office preceding an electoral defeat. What seems to make this type of unfriendly and unexpected transition easiest is the choice of fair and seasoned brokers to manage the out transition. Bush selected White House Deputy Chief of Staff Andrew Card who had years of experience in government to manage the transition out in 1992. Card had learned from 1988 when, despite the "friendly" nature of the transition, Reagan officials begrudgingly left their White House positions. President Bush helped ease Clinton's transition by dismissing his own officials by letter during the transition, allowing the Clinton team to take office more smoothly. Card also cautioned against a total overhaul of the White House: a smooth transition may necessitate retaining some officials in key offices to maintain institutional memory.
What lies ahead for President Obama and his team is the need to plan on several fronts. By mid-fall, the campaign will reach its zenith and the Romney team will be their sworn enemy. As Obama did prior to his victory in 2008, the president should again secure the country against all possibilities and work closely with his Republican adversaries and Governor Romney's transition leader, Mike Leavitt. Appointing a pre-election transition out task force lead by a high-level White House official -- someone like Nancy-Ann DeParle or Peter Rouse -- would signal to the country that sound, secure governance should always take precedence over politics.