Planning efforts for Bill Clinton’s presidential transition started early, but most observers felt it went awry almost immediately and that this impeded his ability to effectively act on his agenda once in office. It took almost six months after the Inauguration for things to come together. Historian John Burke concluded: “. . . the transition lacked a certain organizational and managerial competence.”
After the July 1988 Democratic convention, Bill Clinton asked his campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor, to head up a small pre-transition planning operation. Kantor set up a small office of 10-15 staff in Little Rock, not far from the election campaign headquarters. The group’s work was overseen by a five-member Pre-Transition Planning Foundation, comprised of senior advisors such as Warren Christopher and Vernon Jordan. The group was told to not focus on personnel issues but rather on budget, economic, foreign, and national security policy issues. They also met with the General Services Administration transition support staff and developed an ethics code of conduct for the transition team.
However, Kantor was not part of candidate Clinton’s inner circle involved in his storied campaign “war room.” Much like Jimmy Carter’s Jack Watson, there were pre-transition conflicts between the pre-transition and campaign staffs and Kantor was seen as going out of his way to alienate people.
The day after the election, Kantor presented president-elect Clinton with a thick transition briefing book and recommended himself to be the transition director. Clinton deferred any decision and in the interim, rivalries quickly blossomed. Clinton ultimately selected Jordon to chair the effort and Christopher to be the transition director, with headquarters in Little Rock. A week later, Clinton named a 48-member transition leadership team.
Clinton then turned his focus to selecting his cabinet, which he wanted to be diverse, talented, and able to work together as a team. He also continued his job as governor. Observers noted that no real planning was undertaken in Little Rock around the organization of the White House or its staff. Clinton was reported to believe that the White House staff would come together and fall in place on its own.
Three transition policy teams were formed: domestic, national security, and economic. Cabinet selections paralleled these teams, with appointments for economic-related issues being announced first followed by the foreign policy team. In December, president-elect Clinton chaired an economic summit of 400 business leaders, economists, and union leaders on potential directions for economic policy. Observers felt that the transition team was simultaneously focusing on too many policy fronts, developing laundry lists and briefing books but no specific action plans. Clinton was seen as being attentive to policy development but lacked focus on developing a process to turn them into action. There were some exceptions. For example, Al From, who directed the domestic policy team, put together action plans for specific initiatives such as national community service.
Clinton announced his chief of staff in mid-December. Once announced, Mack McLarty, a childhood friend of Bill Clinton, began to focus on developing a White House structure, such as the creation of the National Economic Council. But many staffers were not hired until the week before Inauguration and they could not get the necessary FBI clearances to begin debriefing departing Bush Administration officials about their jobs. In addition, the campaign had promised a 25 percent cut in White House staff and there was a debate as to what that constituted. So there were discussions about reorganizing the White House and spinning off offices such as the Office of the Trade Representative and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. These debates further delayed the staffing of the White House.
The transition further stalled when key officials – transition team chairman Warren Christopher and transition personnel director Ed Riley – were tapped for cabinet positions (State and Education). As a consequence, they largely disengaged from their transition jobs to begin preparation for their confirmation and staffing of their respective departments. The transition team devolved into confusion until Inauguration Day. The disarray carried over to the new White House staff where an overburdened policy agenda began to collide with an understaffed organization, allowing many opportunities for action to slip away in the early months of the 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! ***