American Presidential Transition Information

A big help to the Transition Coordinating Council and the overall transition effort. Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise.
- President George W. Bush

A wealth of information...a wonderful road map to a job
- I. Ari Fleischer, White House Press Secretary

Since 1997, the White House Transition Project has combined the efforts of scholars, universities, and policy institutions to smooth out the American presidential transition. WHTP bridges the gaps between the partisan forces engaged in settling elections and the decision processes essential to governing by providing non-partisan information about the challenges of the American presidential transition and the strategies for overcoming those challenges. It provides these and other resources to presidential campaigns, to the president-elect, and to the new administration. These resources include three separate report series providing a White House institutional memory, perspectives on past transitions, and advanced research covering special aspects of transitions and governing. The WHTP also provides unique analysis of the appointments process and a clearinghouse on other transition resources.

Permission to cite freely from these materials is granted provided the following credit is retained: Taken from the White House Transition Project archives,, ©1999-2014.

WHTP Resources include:

Click here for expert commentators from the White House Transition Project.

						Director Martha Kumar presents briefs to Bush transition directorThis series provides the essential information needed to assure a smooth transition. Reports in this series detail organization and operations in a range of offices critical to a properly functioning White House. These reports rely heavily on the extensive interviews conducted by WHTP's White House Interview Program, an innovative program that has given practitioners a useful way to pass on their experiences to those that follow, regardless of party. Pictured at left, WHTP Director, Martha Kumar reviews with Bush Transition Director Clay Johnson one of the briefing books WHTP provided for each of the offices covered by the 2001 series: Chief of Staff, Staff Secretary, Director of Personnel, White House Administration, White House Counsel, Press Secretary, and Office of Communications. Mr. Johnson had served as the Bush for President Transition planner and had worked with WHTP staff for almost two years by the time the new administration took office. He would go on to serve as Director of Presidential Personnel in the new White House.

The institutional memory series office descriptions detail basic organizational structures, as well as typical work routines, identify what those who have done the job commonly think has worked and what has not.

The series for 2009 begins with updated descriptions for each of the seven offices covered in the original and highly acclaimed 2001 series. In addition, this series includes organizational charts for many offices typically running from 1978 through 2000 at six month intervals.

Organization Charts

A shortcut to the Institutional Memory Series, The White House World gathers and digests the same material provided to the Bush White House staff in 2001.

White House World
For access to the 2001 version of these reports in the institutional memory series, along with access to organizational charts, select the WHTP - 2001 Institutional Memory Series .
To reach any of the authors of our office studies, download the WHTP Expert Registry or see the brief listings under the "News from WHTP" section.

This series details general challenges to previous transitions. The reports here come from authors and practitioners alike. Click here to jump to the General Transition Series or select one of the individual studies listed below for the specific report. This series has two sets of reports, covering past transitions and the general topic of transitions. [All in PDF Format]

General Guides

Presidential Transition Discussions
A Partnership with the Council on Excellence in Government

A Special Symposium of the Public Administration Review (reprinted here by permission PAR)

Evaluating Past Transitions

Howard Baker, Jr., 
						Terry Sullivan, and James A. Baker III (left to right)

These briefing papers concentrate on issues and resources identified in discussions with past White House staff, including those attending the WHTP and James Baker Institute's meeting of the former White House Chiefs of Staff.

The series exploits new databases focusing on travel, the 100 days, organizational routine, crisis management, press, the White House budget, and other matters. It also includes taking advantage of earlier databases produced for the 2001 transition plans, including information on presidential appointments.[All in PDF format]

New Institutional Data

Appointments Database and Analysis

  • The 2012 Plum Book. OPM's guide to presidential appointments. WHTP makes it available by download (pdf): click to download here.
  • The Details of Inquiry — Fixing the Presidential Appointments Process by Terry Sullivan Revised!
  • The Real Invisible Hand: Presidential Appointees in the Administration of George W. Bush by G. Calvin MacKenzie

Special Report: The View from the Nerve Center

Nerve Center jacket

In its first book in the special studies series, WHTP and its partner The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University focus on the specific operational problems faced by the White House Chief of Staff. The book, Nerve Center: Lessons on Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff is published by the Texas A&M University Press.

Nerve Center compiles the collective judgments of 12 of the 14 living former White House Chiefs of Staff who convened to discuss the challenges that present every White House trying to move the nation's agenda forward. "Some of us have tried to oust others of us from office," noted James A. Baker III in his remarks opening the conference, "but on many issues about how to do the nation's business, we are all agreed there is no partisan answer. Every new administration deserves a chance to realize the electorate's will without stumbling through the simplest mistakes. We've all been there and regardless of who steps into this job on the twentieth of January, we want the best for them."

Those involved in the conference and covered in the book include:

  • Former Congressman, Sec. of Defense, and Vice-President Richard Cheney
  • Former Sec. of Treasury and of State James A. Baker III
  • Former Senate Majority Leader and Ambassador Howard Baker, Jr.
  • Former Congressman, Ambassador, and Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
  • Former Congressman, OMB Director, Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta
  • Former Governor John Sununu
  • Former Sec. of Transportation Samuel Skinner
  • Erskine Bowles
  • John Podesta
  • Jack Watson
  • Thomas "Mack" McClarty
  • Kenneth Duberstein, and
  • Former Sec. of Commerce Andy Card

Click on headline to see story.

Not Just Sharks and Jets
WHTP Supports Steps in Appointments Reform

In accordance with S. 679, a bill to reform the presidential appointments process, the President's Working Group on Streamlining the Nominations and Appointments Process reported to the President and Senate leadership on a series of potentially useful reforms. Get the report here.

One of WHTP's primary missions focuses on promoting better understanding of the presidential appointments process, particularly the details of inquiry. "Until WHTP got into it," noted Terry Sullivan, who directs WHTP's project on appointments, "no one really understood the breadth or depth of the questioning that nominees faced [NB: WHTP research shows they must now provide some 6,000 details]." WHTP has published research on reforming the appointments process since 2000. The Senate Committee report accompanying S. 679 quoted several passages from WHTP's Details of Inquiry citing a version of the WHTP study that appeared in the Public Administration Review.

S. 679 Background. In March 2011, a bipartisan leadership task force announced proposed changes to the appointments process that it hoped would lay the foundation for more extensive reforms. The recommendations, found in S. 679, called for a reduction in the numbers of executive positions which carry a PAS designiation (Presidential Appointee Senate confirmable). These positions typically involve operational rather than policy-making responsibilities and typically include legislative affairs and public affairs officers in the line agencies. In an earlier decision, the White House had dropped its use of the White House Personal Data Statement, a questionnaire which greatly increased unnecessarily duplicative inquiry. "On appointments, a common flashpoint in gridlock politics, both these steps represented good faith attempts to find a common ground," Sullivan commented, "In Washington and on appointments, it's not just sharks and jets any more."

Having passed in the House in July 2012, the President signed the bill August 10. The Senate bill also initiated a review of the inquiry process, long called for by a number of commissions and supported by WHTP. The review included consolidating nominee information and outlining a plan for developing a "Smart Form" modelled on WHTP's Nomination Forms Online, software developed for the 2000-2001 transition. "We are particularly pleased with this last part of the bill," reported Terry Sullivan, director of the WHTP NFO program, "as it takes significant steps to improve the inquiry process along the lines WHTP has advocated for more than a decade."

The report from the President's working group underscores the need for a "common core" of questions, a process to easily transfer this common core from the Executive to the Senate and a process to adapt current electronic information gathering to facilitate a "smart form" approach to inquiry. The report now goes to the Senate. In May, the Working Group issues a final report on a detailed plan for implementing its smart form approach.

Access WHTP's report on rationalizing inquiry and other reports in the Institutional Anatomy Series on this site by clicking here.

New Presidents: How to Make a Smooth Transition
WHTP Director Kumar Talks with the
Washington Post's Tom Fox

Kumar's latest book on the 2008 presidential transition is set to be released in 2013. She spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.

How should federal managers navigate a presidential transition?
They can sum up their work and the work of their employees so that incoming people are aware of the talent that exists. Often, the White House will look with suspicion on people in departments and agencies but, in fact, they need to see them as resources. One approach is to have the managers provide information that highlights all of the things they can do, who their people are, what type of resource they represent and what all the programs are. Managers should gather information on campaign promises or second-term promises so that they're thinking of what is coming ahead. Information is the key, and providing it to the right people at the right time.

Which was the most successful presidential transition?
The 2008 to 2009 transition is about as good as we've had. With the two wars and a catastrophic financial situation, the Bush administration put a great deal of energy into planning early and bringing the two sides together. Memoranda also helped get the new administration up to speed on what happened over the course of the Bush administration. However, written information has to be supplemented with principal-to-principal contact, and President Bush and President Obama exchanged information and talked about substantive issues. Even at the lower levels, incoming people came to White House sessions to sit next to those who were already in office to learn about the operations and have frank discussions about what works and what doesn't.

What obstacles can impede presidential transitions?
One of them is the pressure to bring in campaign workers. You need some campaign people because they have knowledge of why you're there in the first place, but you also need people who have experience with governing. People with campaign experience have you looking at things in terms of black and white. When you get into the White House, you're always going to be dealing with shades of grey, because compromise is important. Compromising is often what governing is about.

What are the attributes that make a president a great leader? Which presidents do you think have exhibited these best?
A president needs to be a listener. You have to listen in order to learn which issues are of critical importance. You need to be able to explain what the challenges are that we are facing, lay out how we will face those challenges and then give updates on the actions of the government in that particular area. Another quality is the ability to inspire people in a way that gives them hope. One more quality is having an understanding of the resources available in departments and agenciesand making use of them.
I think Theodore Roosevelt combined a lot of these qualities. He was able to get a great deal done without a crisis. He showed that a president should be a world leader negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese war, facilitating the building of the Panama Canal and receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Usually the great leaders that we think of, such as Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, governed during periods of war. Theodore Roosevelt wanted to take a strong position on issues that he felt were important, including domestic issues such as railroad regulation. All along the way, he provided strong presidential leadership.

Do you have a favorite story about a presidential transition?
President Truman wanted to bring together both candidates in 1952, Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower, for lunch at the White House. Stevenson accepted, but Eisenhower did not. Eisenhower and his team were very suspicious of what Truman had in mind. Truman wanted to brief them, have all the Cabinet members brief them on their departments and what was going on, and answer whatever questions they had. In 2008, I think for the first time, we really got beyond the partisan suspicion to have both sides working together, including being in the same room and doing that well before the presidential election and prior to the conventions.

Some Notes on Second Terms

A few patterns to second terms:

  • Since the end of World War II, all second term presidents have faced at least one house of Congress in the hands of the other party. Divided government is the common pattern.
  • Outside of the founders' generation, few presidents have made a successful bid for reelection:
    1. Of the twenty-seven presidents dating from the end of the founders' generation up to the end of WWII, six have succefully run for a second term.
    2. Of the eleven post WWII presidents, six have successfully run for a second term.
  • Second term presidents make more major requests of Congress for programs than they did during their first terms.
  • Second term presidents do not succeed as much in their second terms as they did in their first terms.
  • Second term congressional majorities propose slightly more major programs during a president's second term as they do during the first term.
  • Second term congressional majorities succeed as much during a president's second terms as they did during the first term.

Transition Quote:

I came in to the White House for an interview at 9PM. The next morning, they called me in and in less than 12 hours, I was sitting in a White House office. I told my assistant that I wasn't even sure I actually had a job. But, on my new desk, I already had a four inch stack of phone messages and every one of them already had my name on it.

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