While president-elect George W. Bush’s transition was delayed almost a month because of the uncertainty of the election outcome, historian John P. Burke rates his transition as probably one of the most effective in modern times. This was not only because of effective prior planning by the president-elect and the relative absence of infighting among the president-elect’s transition and campaign staffs, but also the supporting materials developed and contributed by many think tanks. In fact Roy Neel, the head of Al Gore’s nascent transition effort, called it “breathtakingly successful.”
Bush started his presidential transition planning efforts in 1999 when he asked his long-time friend, Clay Johnson, III, to start thinking about it. Johnson at the time was Texas Governor Bush’s chief of staff. Johnson immersed himself in the literature about past transitions and contacted a range of advisors from the Reagan and elder Bush’s Administrations. He talked with them about how to set up a White House, what characteristics to look for when selecting candidates for different cabinet posts, and how to manage inter-relationships between different departments. He also talked with former leaders of past transitions about details such as understanding the FBI clearance process.
By June 2000, Johnson had developed a list of tasks and priorities for managing the transition. Once Richard Cheney was selected to be Bush’s vice presidential candidate, Johnson sat down with him and honed the list based on Cheney’s prior White House experience. Johnson had developed a list of about 200 names for potential cabinet posts before Election Day and in mid-October Andrew Card was quietly asked to be the White House chief of staff. Johnson knew from the history of past transitions that putting a White House staff in place early was a key to success.
When the election results were delayed, the transition efforts slowed down. On November 27th, after the Florida secretary of state certified Bush as the winner, the Bush presidential transition effort became more public. But because the election results were not official, the Bush transition effort was not eligible to receive public funding from the General Services Administration. Bush funded his initial transition effort with private funds, with a paid staff of 15 supplemented with about 50 volunteers. On December 14, after Vice President Al Gore conceded the election, the transition efforts were ramped up. Cheney was formally named the transition chairman and Johnson became the transition executive director.
By then, the Bush transition team had already identified all the key White House staff positions. Within three weeks, Bush announced his entire cabinet. Afterwards, the selection of sub-cabinet positions was done jointly between the White House Office of Personnel and the cabinet secretaries.
In terms of policy planning, the transition team built off of the policy position briefing papers prepared during the campaign; many of those who contributed to the policy papers became players on the new White House staff. The transition effort decided to focus on five policy proposals in the first months of the Administration, including tax cuts and education reform. This targeted agenda kept the early White House staff focused.
After the Inauguration, the White House staff was reputed to be well-focused. However the Brookings Institution’s Presidential Appointee Initiative found that filling key appointee positions in agencies was slower than in past Administrations. Of the 485 positions that the Initiative was tracking, only 29 appointees had been confirmed at the 100-day point of the new Administration, and by the end of August 2001, only 227 had been confirmed and 144 of the other positions still had no one even nominated to fill them. Brookings found that it took an average of 8.7 months to move an appointee through the Senate confirmation process.
On the other hand, the availability of training funds set aside by law to orient new political appointees was seen as contributing to a more cohesive team. Johnson said the training was used to create the sense of a unified team, to acquaint them with the President’s goals, values, and expectations; and to provide them with the tools and hindsight of previous Administrations to shorten learning curves.
*** This story was abstracted from John P. Burke’s book, “Becoming President: The Bush Transitions, 2000-2003” If you were involved in this transition, please feel free to add your stories, as well! ***