Jimmy Carter’s pre-election transition effort was more ambitious than any of his predecessors in terms of its size and attention to staffing and policy development. He basically developed the formula that would be used by all of his successors. However, according to presidential historian John Burke, Carter’s transition “proved deeply flawed in its details and execution; it affected, in turn, his presidency.”
Richard Nixon was the first president-elect to receive public funding for his post-election transition effort. However, President Lyndon Johnson split the funding in order to support his departure from office, leaving Nixon with $375,000 to support his transition effort. Carter’s post-election transition effort was the first to receive designated federal funding, in the amount of $2 million.
Carter was the first presidential candidate to start a pre-election transition effort so early, once he got the nomination locked up but before the primary season was over. He designated Jack Watson, who lead Governor Carter’s state government reorganization efforts, to lead the pre-election transition effort in early June. Carter specified that this effort would be separate from the campaign because he did not want to distract the campaign staff.
After the Democratic convention, the pre-transition effort was expanded and staffed with people experienced with the federal government. It was allocated a budget of $150,000 and obtained assistance from a management consulting firm. It developed lists of potential appointees and issues, option papers, and a potential legislative agenda. The existence of this group aggravated the campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan. The campaign staff was concerned that the separate pre-election transition staff was developing options that did not reflect campaign commitments. They also felt the transition team was overly conventional, cautious, late-comers, elitists, who represented the Washington establishment. This led to squabbling and friction.
President-elect Carter chose to stay in Plains, Georgia during the transition. Watson sent him briefing books, option papers, and lists of potential appointees. He also developed a white paper on the role of the transition staff and transition coordinator. Jordan and Watson met with Carter to work out their differences, but Carter did not resolve them. He told them to work it out among themselves. There was no clear line of command and Carter had to continually intervene to resolve conflicts. By that time, there were over 200 staff on the payroll and nearly 80 others as volunteers.
Carter wanted to have a Cabinet-run, rather than a White House staff-run, government. As governor, he convened his cabinet frequently as a deliberative body and he wanted to replicate that in the White House instead of relying on a small cadre of White House staff, as President Nixon did. As a consequence, he occupied himself in the weeks after the election with selecting the Cabinet. In addition, he indirectly delegated the selection of sub-cabinet officials to the cabinet officers. He did not focus on the selection and organization of the White House staff until a week before the Inauguration. Roles of White House staffers were not defined; they evolved over the succeeding months.
In parallel, without a strong decision-making process in place, the number of policy initiatives to be pursued in the early months of the Administration grew. There was no process to manage them.
Taken together, these various mishaps framed the Administration with a sense of disorganization and micro-management by the President that persisted throughout his Administration.
*** This story was abstracted from John P. Burke’s book, “Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice.” If you were involved in this transition, please feel free to add your stories, as well! ***