In addition to the surprises and tonnage of incoming challenges, simply starting the job is a gargantuan undertaking. It may help to imagine a presidential transition as a private-sector company going through a merger. With only two months of preparation, the new CEO must take over a $2 trillion enterprise with 4 million employees and hire 4,000 managers, 1,500 of whom have to be vetted by a hostile board of directors. Then, on his first day in the corner office, the new top man must be ready to face the most difficult challenges of running the business while simultaneously launching a brand refresh and implementing an entirely new strategic plan. Oh, and he’ll have to do all of his prep work through Zoom, during a pandemic spike that he’s supposed to manage between meetings about how to revive a crumpled economy. “Every day matters in a transition, and every day that is lost is more important than the previous day,” David Marchick, the director of the Center for Presidential Transition, told me. “You can’t make it up.”
“I spent so much time getting to know people who could help me get elected president,” John Kennedy lamented, “that I didn’t have any time to get to know people who could help me, after I was elected, to be a good president.” To fix this imbalance, experts, do-gooders, and others who care about the right way of doing things have pushed to improve presidential onboarding. In 2015, Congress passed legislation to start the transition process six months before the election. After the vote, the General Services Administration is supposed to give the president-elect access to office space, the intelligence services are supposed to brief the new team, and the FBI is supposed to start the security-clearance process so that new hires will be able to start work right away.
This is not just a legal requirement. Ensuring a smooth transition is another one of those patterns of doing things that line up with the basic ideas of the public good. George W. Bush and his chief of staff, Josh Bolton, set the modern standard for the handoff, welcoming in Obama’s team. In the same spirit, Obama asked his advisers to work with incoming Trump staffers. In the disappearing atoll of bipartisanship, transition cooperation was one bit of dry land that remained above the waves. Such cooperation would be especially helpful this year. The COVID-19 vaccination program, which will begin under Trump but deliver the overwhelming majority of doses under Biden, will require careful coordination. Yet the conversations necessary for a trouble-free changeover are not yet allowed to happen.
The Biden team is perhaps better able to handle transition delays than some of its predecessors. It’s rich in experience. The president-elect moves to the other side of the Resolute desk after a long career sitting in front of it. His team will include a lot of executive-branch veterans who have muscle memory and believe in the systems and orderly procession of ideas backed by reason and evidence that often make organizations work well.
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