Ronald Reagan’s transition has been characterized as one of the most effective in modern history. It was well-planned, internal staff friction was limited, and a clear policy agenda led to quick wins in the first year of his Administration.
Reagan’s pre-election transition effort was limited to personnel planning. Unlike the Carter effort, there was no emphasis on policy-making, agenda-setting, or organization of the White House. Pendelton James, a former Nixon White House personnel office staffer and professional headhunter, led the early efforts. He reported to Ed Meese who was the chief of staff for Reagan’s presidential campaign. They met frequently and decided that, based on the campaign’s focus on economic issues, James’ priority would bet to identify candidates for the 87 key positions across the government responsible for economic policy. After the election, he developed a database with more than 30,000 names.
Parallel to James’ operation, the campaign created a series of expert working groups and task forces around defense and domestic/economic issues. There were 25 defense working groups under Richard Allen and 23 domestic/economic task forces under Martin Anderson – totaling about 500 members. While these provided insight into campaign issues, they also provided a foundation for the post-election transition effort.
The transition team was led by Bill Casey and Anne Armstrong, who co-chaired the campaign. Meese was appointed the transition director, with Jim Baker (the designated White House chief of staff) as his deputy. Baker focused on organizing the White House. There were 1,200 people – about half of them paid – who participated in about 48 task forces examining agencies, policy, personnel, legislative agendas, and legal issues (40 lawyers volunteered their advice on navigating lobbying and conflict-of-interest rules).
Cabinet selections did not crowd out policy decisions. The White House staff was developed early and focused on policy. Cabinet selections were filtered through an informal “kitchen cabinet” of Reagan friends and James. James ensured tighter White House control over sub-cabinet appointments.
Policy was developed in the context of a broader strategic plan and the White House eventually included an Office of Policy Coordination. Reagan’s decision-making style leaned towards delegation and group deliberation, so the Cabinet was organized around issue clusters focusing on decisions requiring some consensus before being brought to the President.
The transition team developed a detailed, day-by-day agenda for the President’s first month in office. This agenda helped ensure focus on a limited number of policy issues that were at the top of the agenda.
*** 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! ***