COMMENTARY: Presidential transitions influenced by people, circumstances

With less than a year to go until the inauguration of America’s 45th chief executive, several groups and institutions are busy proposing ways to improve the presidential transition process. While heartening, the interim period between election and administration has always been unique to each incoming victor as well as the political circumstances of the moment.

Recently, the Partnership for Public Service created the Center for Presidential Transition as a repository for information. Further, Congress has furnished resources like office space and equipment to assist with the transition from one president to another.

Pending Senate legislation sponsored by Thomas Carper (D-Del.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) would require that an interagency transition council be established in advance of the general election for president.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Finally, the National Academy of Public Administration’s Presidential Transition 2016 initiative proposes a number of deadlines to keep the process moving in a timely fashion.

Ironically, the changes to dates for the presidential inauguration and a new session of Congress made via the 20th Amendment — undertaken to ensure more coordinated government — have instead led to a frenzy of activity in the short 77-day window from presidential election to inauguration.

An incoming president and his team are often unprepared for the number of offices which need filling and for the logistical challenges of transferring equipment and personnel to the new location. This fact highlights the disconnect between campaigning and governing, a chasm which has yet to be linked.

Some presidential transitions have gone better than others, a consequence of the peculiar personalities of the principals and the prevailing political conditions. The switch from the George W. Bush White House to that of Barack Obama was viewed as one of the smoothest transitions in modern memory.

In that instance, the national economic emergency which the nation was experiencing facilitated a friendly changeover. Not so with the presidential transition between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, which took place as the Great Depression worsened in early 1933: Hoover was still smarting from his overwhelming defeat for reelection and did not speak to FDR on the ride to the Capitol.

Similarly, it has been difficult to predict the effectiveness of transitions involving succession presidents. The presidential transition involving Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower was not a textbook case for efficiency. Supposedly, Truman and Eisenhower held a grudge toward the each other involving World War II decisions, leading to a cold changeover in the midst of the Cold War.

But interparty presidential transitions involving succession chief executives do not have to be messy, as the move from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter attests. Ford, narrowly defeated by Carter in the 1976 general election, had every reason to be bitter and obstinate. Rather, the professionalism and friendliness of the Ford White House in accommodating the shift to Jimmy Carter’s staff precipitated a bonding between Ford and Carter after both left the White House.

Obviously, the reason for success in the presidential transition process is not limited to the incoming president himself. Especially where the incoming chief executive’s party affiliation is different from that party controlling Congress, there is the likelihood of delay in confirmation of White House appointments.

In fact, on average only about one-third of Senate-confirmed appointments are filled within the first six months of a president’s first term, a statistic made worse by partisan friction. Not surprisingly, the cases of the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan and George Bush-Bill Clinton transitions demonstrate how both personal and party factors can poison the atmosphere of cooperation and endanger the new president’s success in implementing his agenda.

Despite their unfortunate transition experience, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had an outstanding initial year in office as far as legislative effectiveness. Both demonstrated a keen sense of history and seemed aware that early victories on initiatives would furnish momentum for other policies.

Reagan’s performance is all-the-more impressive considering his long convalescence following an assassination attempt and because unlike FDR, he confronted split party control on Congress.

Granted, the aforementioned presidential transition recommendations are well-intentioned. But this survey of contemporary transition history verifies what some already knew: the presidency is characterized by the dynamic nature which each person brings to the office, a trait not subject to one-size-fits-all suggestions.

As we celebrate Presidents Day 2016, let us be thankful for the individuals who have served in the highest office in the land — mortals all, full of flaws, and special indeed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on the American presidency.

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