How would the growing number of Republican and Democratic candidates go about running the White House and a federal bureaucracy of nearly 4.1 million federal employees if they managed to win election? Would they know on day one which executive levers to pull if the nation suddenly came under renewed terrorist attack, or if another financial crisis suddenly reared its head?
None of these government nuts and bolts-type questions ever gets much attention in the heat of a presidential campaign. And from the looks of the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign, government reform and executive process issues clearly will take a back seat to re-litigating the Iraq war and the State Department’s handling of the terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. Add to that immigration reform, Obamacare and income inequality.
Let’s face it. Voters aren’t likely to get excited about a bumper sticker promising “a smooth transition.” Yet how a winner makes the leap from candidate to president-elect often foretells his success or failure in the early going.
The peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next is a hallmark of American democracy. Government experts say that just beneath the surface, the transition from one administration to the next typically has been rushed, chaotic and potentially dangerous to national security. Sometimes presidential candidates have thought it would be presumptuous of them or unlucky if they began measuring the curtains and preparing to assume power far in advance of the election. In some cases, outgoing administrations have not been fully cooperative with the incoming team.
“You’re taking over the most complicated, most important and most challenging organization on the planet, which is the United States government,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of The Partnership for Public Service, a good government research and advocacy group. “The transition has the biggest impact on all the problems that we need to address collectively as a nation.”
“That process can’t be done effectively within the 77 days that exist between the election and inauguration,” he added in an interview last week. “So candidates have to be doing two things: They need to be trying to win, but they also need to be preparing to govern if they are given the responsibility of running our government.”
Historically, almost every administration dating back to Republican President Ronald Reagan has gotten off to a rocky start in taking control of the White House and winning Senate approval of key appointments, according to Stier.
Even President Obama’s highly touted pre-election transition operation did little to prevent a breakdown on the personnel front after Obama entered the White House in January 2009. That was especially true in his fledgling administration’s vetting of candidates for senior positions and smoothing the way for their Senate confirmation. Of the top 516 Senate-confirmed positions, Obama managed to get just 76 political appointees confirmed and 108 nominated in his first 100 days in office, according to The Washington Post.
Stier, a former congressional staffer and lawyer, argues that as the presidential campaign season heats up, “We need to place as much emphasis on the ability of candidates to lead our government as we do on their policy positions.”
He says that improving presidential transitions will require institutionalizing some important activities now often left to chance, setting higher standards for the incoming administration and encouraging increased cooperation between Congress and the executive branch to ensure that a new administration is fully staffed and ready to govern early on.
To that end, Stier and his organization are launching an ambitious “Ready to Govern” project designed to assist the presidential candidates in preparing to take the reins of the government in January 2017. “As the presidential campaign season heats up, we need to place as much emphasis on the ability of candidates to lead our government as we do on their policy positions,” according to Stier.
The goals are to assemble an archive of institutional knowledge and government best practices; help to demystify the operations of the federal bureaucracy and the budget process; provide guidance in recruiting and vetting personnel for key positions; and offer insights on the inner workings of Congress. The four-pronged approach will be designed to ensure a relatively smooth and safe transfer of both power and knowledge to the incoming presidential administration.
David Eagles, who worked on Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 pre-election transition team, has been tapped to head the presidential transition initiative and has begun assembling a staff. The project will be assisted by a number of high profile organizations and corporations, including IBM, McKinsey & Co., the Boston Consulting Group and the Ford Foundation.
Stier and his organization deserve considerable credit for trying to force the political establishment to look beyond campaign wedge issues, TV ads and fundraising and to begin early on to considering the sobering challenges of making the transition from campaigning to governance. A blue-ribbon panel of government experts and scholars in a January 2010 study sponsored by Stier’s group noted, “No effort to date has been adequate to truly enable any newly elected president to hit the ground running, an inexcusable fact in today’s volatile, fast-paced world where the stakes have never been higher.”
However, there is no guarantee that many, if any, of the major presidential campaign organizations will take advantage of all this expertise and sound advice – at least in the early going when everyone is scrambling for media attention and campaign contributions and not thinking about mundane practical concerns about the day to day operations of the federal government.
Moreover, many of the candidates, including Clinton, a former first lady and senator, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former governor Bush of Florida may think they already know more than enough to assume the reins of the federal executive branch without the benefit of an owner’s manual. It is not uncommon for political practitioners to turn up their noses at academics who deign to offer counsel and advice on how to govern.
It’s just that sort of hubris that has hurt previous administrations in the early going, Stier and others have stressed. It’s also important to note that some of the members of the 2010 blue ribbon panel who urgently recommended major reforms of the presidential transition process included prominent former government officials with plenty of battle scars, including John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten; President George W. Bush’s chief of staff; and Clay Johnson, Bush’s deputy budget director.
Stier said that while the presidential campaigns, the news media and political analysts are riveted on policy issues, it would be a serious mistake for presidential aspirants not to pay attention to how policy is actually made and implemented. “All the attention of stakeholders in on the issues, while next to no attention is being paid to getting those policies done,” Stier said. “That’s just not smart.”
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