About Our Work
Presidential Transitions, FDR-Present
“This is no ordinary moment in the course of our democracy. It is a moment of great peril and risk.”
Scholars who specialize in the study of democracy and the institutions that support it have published an open letter to the Congress. The letter highlights the significant turning point the nation has reached between choosing to continue democratic rule and turning towards perpetuating minority rule and inevitably requiring a reduction of personal freedoms. It calls on the Senate to pass The Freedom to Vote Act and, if necessary, to suspend the Senate’s filibuster rule (which limits debate) to allow for majority rule on bills involving constitutional rights and accomplish this improvement in our national government.
For a copy of the letter, click here.
“And then the president-elect realizes: I’m going to be taking an oath right from the Constitution and it says, preserve, protect, and defend…. But, the president cannot keep that oath without other people keeping their oaths. And those people who took the oath to follow are very young. Some of them too young to vote. Others of them may not have voted for you. But they’ll all keep their oaths, giving up life, limb all because the president said, ‘I need help keeping my oath.’ And that becomes the greatest presidential burden that is carried. And you realize that the night before you take the oath.”
–former Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Jr., describing pre-inauguration briefings
“There’s nothing that can completely prepare you for the job of being President… You know, that first day after…they walk you into the Oval Office, then everybody leaves, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh man, now what?!’
— President Barack Obama, 2016
A letter to the White House Transition Project:
“You were a big help to the Transition Coordinating Council and the overall transition effort both in 2001 and 2008. Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise.”
–- President George W. Bush, 2010
Since 1997, the White House Transition Project has provided non-partisan expertise in all phases of democratic transitions, from constitution-building in emerging democracies to regularized, statute driven transfers of power. This page previews those services, beginning with highlighted essays or reports of special interest.
Follow the Transition
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Start Early, Go Big – inside the Biden Transition
“Wonderful storytelling and sharp analysis. Required reading for anyone interested in how to run a transition and build a presidency.”
— Paul C. Light, Goddard Professor of Public Service, NYU
WHTP Director Martha J. Kumar has released a new study of the Biden Transition. Click here for the full report in PDF and click here for the official version generously made possible by Wiley publications. The abstract:
The 2021 transition will be remembered as the most tumultuous in over a century. President Trump sought to delegitimize the presidential election as flawed and refused to concede his loss, and several of his departments and agencies slow-walked their cooperation with the incoming team. The insurrection on the Capitol and the Trump impeachment trial brought more turmoil. How, in such an environment, did Joseph R. Biden manage to complete the basic transition preparations needed to get off to the fast and effective start his administration had? A presidential transition has two dominant threads that come together to pave the path to a productive beginning. Early transition planning was aided by existing laws requiring the federal government to provide important elements to transition planning. Additionally, Biden drew on people who had experience in both management and government service.
The Biden White House Organization Chart
The White House Transition Project releases its newest organization chart (a part of its long standing program detailing White House staffing patterns). This is a three page chart covering the White House Office, the Vice President’s Office, the First Lady’s Office, and the NSC.
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Reports on the “Stand Up” at 300 Days
This report summarizes six measures of the Biden Administration’s progress in standing up the American Executive. It covers filling the government’s “stand-up critical” positions, the general pace of nominations and confirmations, the Agency by Agency stand up, a recurring monitor on gender, and a summary of the backlog of nominations and confirmations.
|President||By now, Nominees Never Sent||Withdrawals by Now||
A Brief Note on “Exploding Cigars”
|* No available data.
**Biden may yet nominate. See the section on the administration’s backlog.
|The Stand-Up Critical Pace at 300 days
Comparing Initial Starts on 274 Positions Critical to Governing
The Biden administration continues to lag most of its predecessors (particularly President Obama) in filling stand-up critical positions in the Executive, but it inches forward just barely ahead of the Trump pace. Both lagged far behind President Obama’s standard. Most of this lag results from the Senate’s inability to work through the administration’s nominations. Currently, 60 standup critical positions remain in Senate limbo (see general summaries on the pace of deliberations and the Senate backlog). At this time in 2017, Trump had 58 nominations waiting, while Obama had only 35.
|National Security Stand-Up Critical Positions at 300 days
The Biden administration has less than half of its security positions staffed, while at the same point in his administration, President Obama had filled nearly 60% of these positions. At this time in 2017, the Trump presidency had only staffed out a third of its national security positions.
The Peril in Agency Standup – Agencies staffed up below average and the Federal Vacancies Act.
Many agencies remain staffed well below their leadership needs. In many of these agencies, the Biden administration has appointed “acting” heads of agencies and filled other positions with similarly temporary appointments. The President’s “acting” heads will soon be forced out by the Federal Vacancies Act. For the latter, see this report at Bloomberg Law.
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Naming the Administration – nominations continue slightly above average.
The Biden White House has maintained a nomination pace above the average. The Obama and Reagan performances still set the record pace for nominations. The Biden’s administration numbers have now begun to run apace of those for President George W. Bush. The last president with a sitting Senate majority — President Trump — still remains in last place among modern presidencies.
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Confirmations Next – The Senate still lags on confirmations.
Since the beginning of the modern appointments system (beginning with President Reagan’s tenure), few Senate majorities have had a slower stand-up process. The lack of Senate work on Biden nominations has led inevitably to a below average number of confirmations, holding up the government. The general standup now also has a large backlog to work on (see the backlog). Biden’s remains the second worst stand up in modern history.This slow pace will breed chaos as the Federal Vacancies Act begins to step in and empty out Biden’s temporary appointments. See the excellent story on this problem at Bloomberg Law.
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The Pace of Deliberations – The Senate Sets Records.
But in a bad way. Like all previous administrations, the greatest proportion of the time associated with getting a government position filled occurs in the Executive. While the Biden White House remains below the average, taking less time to nominate positions (149 days) than the average for the past six presidencies (157 days), the pace of Senate deliberations has set records, in an exceptionally bad way, coming close to matching the Executive pace, an unheard of slothfulness at 100 days than even the Trump/McConnell Senate majority did (78) — the previous sad record. For Biden, the Senate floor deliberations (at 36 days) have taken four times the average for the past six presidencies (at 9 days). The pattern for committee deliberations, however, normally less partisan, have lengthened (now at 64 days) remains more than a two-third longer than the average for previous Senates (40 days).
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The Backlog – As the White House has slowly rebuilt its bench of announced nominations, the Senate has plenty of nominations left in its tank to consider.
In the Executive, backlogs happen when vetting announced nominees builds up a number of nominees not yet sent to the Senate. In the Senate, its backlogs happen when the Senate has more nominations to deal with than time. The current Democratic Senate has a record setting number of unconfirmed Biden nominations waiting in the wings (almost twice the average). The Executive, on the other hand, has begun to build back its own backlog of announced nominees (now many times the average). Overall, the search for potential nominees continues to seem curiously slow, though.
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The Gender Rate – Still the Bright Spot.
On gender, the Biden record continues to double the average of his predecessors; the new administration almost doubles the rate of even the average for Democratic predecessors. The administration’s nominees almost triple the gender rate for GOP predecessors. While the cabinet is more diverse than any other, the new administration’s commitment to gender representation throughout the government stands out as an especially significant pattern. New numbers on White House staffing also suggest this same pattern on gender.
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Details of a Peaceful Transition
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Congressional Testimony on Presidential Transitions
Since 1964, Congress and the President recognized then and continue to acknowledge the importance of an effective transition to a good start for a new President and his team. Having a well-organized operation developed early in the election year benefits a President. Organizing early with an experienced and knowledgeable staff, an incoming President can seize the political momentum and establish his brand of leadership at a time when the public is paying attention. See the complete testimony of WHTP Director Martha Joynt Kumar by clicking here. To view the actual testimony and committee hearing, click here.
Presidential Activities During the 100 Days
On day 1, new presidents step onto the thin ice of history, alone. What do they do all day, who do they see, and what choices affect both? A new report from WHTP answers these questions. It summarizes the distribution of time dedicated to responsibilities, what do presidents trade-off to increase their engagement in communications, and with lots of “senior advisors” who gets cut out of the room. For a copy, click here.
The Potential For Presidential Leadership
The challenge of a new transition inevitably involves how to lead. Now, more than ever, a new president will face that challenge. In an essay on how opportunity and persuasion shape the potential for leadership, renown presidential scholar George Edwards suggests “Staying private is likely to contribute to reducing gridlock, incivility, and public cynicism and deserves a more prominent role in the president’s strategic arsenal.” For a copy, click here.
WHTP’s Public Information Events
(as of 04/09/2021) No events currently planned.
Highlighted WHTP Briefs
See all of our briefs here.
Life in OMB is not in the fast lane. Life in OMB is in the oncoming lane.
— Former Director OMB, Jim Miller
The joint product of 21 former senior OMB leaders, the WHTP briefing book on OMB offers a unique view on this critical executive agency and what it takes to run it. Many agree that the requirements for leadership at OMB are far different than what many in Washington expect — having experience in the congressional budget process, for example, is widely agreed upon as not one of them. Not unexpectedly, many in Washington simply don’t understand what it takes to lead at OMB and carry through on the President’s mission. To get your own copy of the guide, click here.
This synopsis summarizes the WHTP briefing book on the White House Chief of Staff, click here.
In the end, every chief of staff is a servant of the president, and the more independence they ask for or try to carve out for themselves, the more likely they are to fail.
It once was possible to argue that the White House could be run without a chief of staff. Those days are gone. The complexity of the modern White House requires discipline and coordination that can only be achieved if there is a central coordinating point, someone other than the president to oversee the operation. If independence and authority are both the necessity of a White House and a recipe for failure, then how do White House Chiefs of Staff proceed. This new brief brings the wisdom of experience to bear on this question from the advice of those who have borne the responsibility. Click here for a copy.
Once the epitome of a spare part, the Vice Presidency has become a central element of every administration’s successes or failures.
“Two brothers went off to make their fortunes. One went to sea and the other became Vice President. Neither was ever heard from again.” No other job in the American constitutional system has seen a greater transformation than the Office of the Vice President. This new briefing book on the vice-president outlines the dimensions of that change and how to manage the opportunities and responsibilities of this newly defined position in the White House.
See all of briefs here.
Technical Aspects of Peaceful Transitions
The New Government Stands Up
Using the Senate’s “Nuclear Option” slowed confirmations, …again
A new WHTP study analyzes deployments of the “nuclear option” to limit the filibuster, along with other Senate changes affecting deliberations on nominations (including limits on “blue slips”). Senate leaders of both parties intended these changes to promote faster consideration of the president’s judicial nominees. That hasn’t happen. Here’s why, what did happen, and how to strengthen the appointments process before the next time. The highlighted changes would actually reduce partisanship.
WHTP’s Research Summary on Appointment Politics outlines in memo form what research tells us about how to get ready for and then improve the appointments process, including how to limit the impact of growing partisanship.
Presidents and the Press
Trump in Comparative Perspective
Using her unique data on press interactions, WHTP’s Martha Joynt Kumar compares President Donald Trump to his five predecessors showing how each used the communications strategies that brought them to the presidency. In that way, President Trump mirrors his predecessors. But in other ways, those five predecessors had more in common with each other than with President Trump. See this analysis by clicking here.
US Presidency Operations Research
Emerging Democracy Transitions
US Constitutional Transitions
WHTP’s Basic Transition Services
Since 1997, the White House Transition Project has interviewed a wide range of Assistants to the President about the best ways to carry out the president’s transition to governing and manage their responsibilities in governing. WHTP scholars who specialize in the various operations of a White House, use these interviews to provide a guide for the new presidential team.
Original Interview Foundations for Office Briefs
In addition to these basic resources for US Presidential Transitions, WHTP maintains a collection of its basic interview, through our long-standing partner, the US National Archives. For a sample of these interviews currently in the public domain go here.
Essays on Running Transitions
To adjust critical attitudes about presidential transitions, WHTP maintains a collection essays on how transitions work and how others have learned the lessons about how to prepare. See the drop down menu under the banner for general essays on transitions.
WHTP’s Original Research
To supplement our basic transition resources, WHTP maintains robust research agendas on topics of interest to the US Presidential transition and to normal White House operations. Some of these studies result from requests originating with previous White House staffs as they try to improve their governing operations. This section previews some of these studies.
Current WHTP Studies On Presidential-Press Relations
In one of our periodic reviews, Martha Joynt Kumar reviews presidential interchanges with the press over the last six presidencies and as of 30 months into their administrations. Read the report: Six Presidents Interchange’s with Reporters at 30 Months – Kumar. Some of the highlights:
- President Trump answers 50% more questions from the press than the average for the last five presidents.
- Presidents have expanded their press relations into forums they believe are their strong suit.
- While most presidents aim their communications to the average citizen, President Trump aims at his supporters alone.
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Current WHTP Studies on Presidential Work Routines
The use of time represents the president’s most valuable asset. A commitment to one responsibility necessarily precludes commitment to another. And as a president faces changed circumstances, changing commitments creates trade-offs between responsibilities. Using the daily minute by minute logs of presidents, WHTP builds a picture of typical presidential commitment and trade-offs. These studies focus on two topics: the transition period through to the 100th day and crisis management. See for example, Presidential Work in the First 100 Days.
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WHTP Reports on Presidential Appointments
The pace of appointments in both the executive and in the Senate accounts for the ability of any administration to carry out its responsibilities to the electorate and to the nation. Appointments fulfill the president’s agenda set by the election and they also stand up the critical functions of the national government, from transportation to space to global economics and national defense.
Our personnel trackers report on deliberations across the entire appointments process:
- WH Identifies: The White House search for appropriate nominees from available candidates. Typically, this stage culminates in an announcement of the “president’s intent to nominate” a candidate.
- Executive Review: The executive branch conducts vetting of the candidate. This stage culminates in sending credentials to the Senate as an official nominee.
- Sen Comm Vetting: The first of two Senate stages, a committee investigates the nominee, culminating in a committee report and recommendation to the full Senate.
- Sen Floor Process: The final disposition of a nominee in the Senate, culminating in floor vote to confirm the nominee.
WHTP’s Personnel Trackers follow the pace of appointments in the new administration by comparison with administration’s dating to the rise of the modern appointments system during President Reagan’s first year. The trackers cover two groups: a common set of 220 “critical” appointments and a larger, more diverse group of 980 presidential nominations.
WHTP reports these results in 10 day increments during the first two years. See our Appointments page for more detailed information.
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