Expert Commentary

The transfer of power: A roundup of research on US presidential transitions

When problems arise during the brief period when one U.S. president hands off executive power to the next, it can have serious consequences for the country, academic studies show.

presidential transitions

The weeks between Election Day in November and the swearing in of a new U.S. president the following January are usually packed with activities aimed at helping a new administration take over managing one of the world’s most powerful countries.

The president-elect and vice president-elect need that time to prepare for their new roles while the outgoing administration wraps up its work, explains John P. Burke, a political science professor at the University of Vermont who specializes in the American presidency.

“Even under the best of circumstances, the roughly 75 days between Election Day and inauguration on January 20 pose constraints in vetting and selecting key personnel, developing early legislative initiatives, and shifting from a campaigning mode to one of governance, among other immediate tasks,” Burke writes in the academic journal Presidential Studies Quarterly in December 2018.

An incoming president “is responsible for making more than 4,000 political appointments, overseeing a budget of nearly $4 trillion, and managing a huge organization that employs more than 2 million federal employees and more than 2 million military and reserve forces,” the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition explains on its website.

When problems arise during the brief period when one U.S. president hands off executive power to the next, it can have serious consequences for the country, academic studies show. Scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, who has researched presidential transitions for decades, has expressed concern about the impact of the delay in President-elect Joe Biden’s transition process, taking place amid a global pandemic and the resulting economic collapse.

Biden got off to a late start because the chief of the U.S. General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, for more than two weeks held off on releasing funding and other federal resources to assist with his transition. Citing uncertain election results, Murphy withheld her decision ascertaining who won the Nov. 3 presidential election until Nov. 23.

President Donald Trump still refuses to concede. While a concession is not required for the transition to move forward, it is tradition for losing candidates to concede to signal their support for the peaceful transfer of power.

“The government doesn’t stop because there’s a new president,” Joynt Kumar, emeritus professor of political science at Towson University, told Bloomberg Opinion Editor Romesh Ratnesar during a recent interview. “It’s a train that’s moving and he and his team have to hop on. And when they do get on, they want to be knowledgeable so they can be productive right from the start.”

Considering the importance of the president-elect’s transition to office, we gathered research and reports to help journalists better understand the issue. Below are several academic studies that examine the transition processes of multiple presidents, including Trump and Barack Obama. They demonstrate the significance of a peaceful transfer of power and highlight the ways problematic transitions can harm the country, especially in the area of national security.

Included in the research below is our summary of the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. It examines events leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and finds that President George W. Bush’s delayed transition to office played a contributing role.

For additional context, we added two reports on presidential transitions from the Congressional Research Service, a federal agency located within the Library of Congress. One of those reports focuses on the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which outlines the formal process of transferring power from one U.S. president to the next.

The impact of a rocky transfer of power

The Contemporary Presidency “It Went Off the Rails”: Trump’s Presidential Transition and the National Security System
John P. Burke. Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2018.

This paper examines Donald Trump’s transition to the presidency in 2016 and 2017 and finds that the “postelection transition failed to take advantage of getting the Trump national security system up and running effectively.”

Trump’s transition was marred by multiple problems, including delays in filling key positions, the abrupt and “embarrassing” resignation of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn as Trump’s National Security Council advisor, and the fact that Trump’s “inner circle” lacked foreign and national security policy expertise and experience working in government, notes John P. Burke, a University of Vermont political science professor.

Another problem: An apparent lack of interest in the transition materials the President Barack Obama’s administration had prepared, Burke writes. He also points out that “Trump and Flynn’s NSC [National Security Council] staff picks often lacked proper security clearances to receive information prepared by their Obama counterparts: some 270 briefing papers and over 1,000 pages of classified material on the most immediate and pressing national security issues.”

“In filling key positions and in hitting the ground running, the Trump administration lagged behind its predecessors,” Burke writes. “Errors and failure particularly occurred in the national security area, which has been usually historically immune from problematic transitions. The Trump transition will likely serve as a textbook case in what not to do for his successors.”

The 2008 National Security Council Transition: Providing Continuity in a Bipartisan Environment
Martha Joynt Kumar. Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2013.

This paper examines the transition from Republican President George W. Bush to his Democratic successor Barack Obama in 2008 and 2009, and finds that the incoming national security team’s “solid working relationship” with outgoing officials allowed the new administration to get a strong start on national security issues.

Bush and his national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, “went out of their way to make certain they could be helpful to whomever won the presidential election by starting early and providing complete information on NSC [National Security Council] programs, organization, and personnel,” writes Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, which helps streamline presidential transitions by providing new White House staff with information about their individual offices.

“With a solid working relationship with outgoing officials, the incoming national security team acted early to develop an organizational and decision-making structure for the National Security Council reflecting the wishes of President Obama and General Jones.”

Joynt Kumar also writes that the “outgoing Bush administration provided information to the incoming administration of Barack Obama and he in turn made early appointment decisions that allowed his national security team to get information from the incumbent administration well before the inauguration.”

“Throughout the preparations for the 2008 changeover of power between the outgoing and incoming administrations, there were two key elements that facilitated an effective start for the NSC [National Security Council] as well as for other administrative units,” she continues. “First in importance for the NSC were the face-to-face briefings and conversations of those leaving office with the people coming in. … Underlying the success of the principal-to-principal meetings was a second element of the transition, a series of memoranda informing the principals about the status of issues and what was going on in particular geographical areas.”

Joynt Kumar notes that the 2008 transition differed from earlier ones because of “the extensive information the George W. Bush White House team left behind for its successors.” This sharing of information, she writes, “was invaluable because the incoming team got the thinking of those who already had thought through the issues in their time in the office.”

She also stresses the importance of bipartisanship in the success of these meetings and the development of a decision-making system for the new administration.

Crisis Management at the Dead Center: The 1960-1961 Presidential Transition and the Bay of Pigs Fiasco
Rebecca R. Friedman. Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2011.

This analysis looks at how John F. Kennedy’s transition into the presidency in 1960 and 1961 contributed to the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, a CIA-backed attack in April 1961 aimed at removing Cuban leader Fidel Castro from power. The study finds that a presidential transition “is a moment of acute vulnerability for the United States.”

“Drawing upon newly declassified documents — many unredacted versions released within the past decade — from the Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy Libraries, this article demonstrates that the Bay of Pigs operation’s failure was primarily a transition failure,” writes author Rebecca R. Friedman, who is now known professionally as Rebecca Lissner and is an assistant professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College.

The author identifies several other factors that contributed to what she calls a “foreign policy catastrophe” but notes “the challenges of the [presidential] transition underlie all” these other factors. She also warns that if policymakers “are not mindful of mistakes made during past transitions, they are doomed to repeat them.”

One of her main takeaways: “The resounding lesson of the Bay of Pigs fiasco is the necessity of effective information transmission — through formal and informal channels — between administrations,” she writes.

The 9/11 Commission ReportFinal Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, July 2004.

George W. Bush’s transition into the presidency in 2001 is among the factors that contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to this final report from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, an independent commission charged with investigating the circumstances leading up to the attacks.

Part of the 585-page report focuses on problems with the transition between presidents in 2000 and 2001. Because Election Night 2000 “became a 36-day legal fight” over which presidential candidate had the most votes, the country did not know the winner until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 12 and Bush’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, conceded.

“The dispute over the election and the 36-day delay cut in half the normal transition period,” the authors write. “Given that a presidential election in the United States brings wholesale change in personnel, this loss of time hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.”

The report also explains that “the new administration did not have its deputy cabinet officers in place until the spring of 2001, and the critical subcabinet officials were not confirmed until the summer — if then. In other words, the new administration — like others before it — did not have its team on the job until at least six months after it took office.”

In the report, compiled after a series of public hearings, the commission makes several recommendations for improving the transition between administrations. For example, the report suggests “the outgoing administration should provide the president-elect, as soon as possible after election day, with a classified, compartmented list that catalogues specific, operational threats to national security; major military or covert operations; and pending decisions on the possible use of force.”

“Since a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice, we should minimize as much as possible the disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administrations by accelerating the process for national security appointments,” the authors write. “We think the process could be improved significantly so transitions can work more effectively and allow new officials to assume their new responsibilities as quickly as possible.”

Congressional Research Service reports on presidential transitions

Presidential Transition Act: Provisions and Funding
Henry B. Hogue. Congressional Research Service, November 2020.

This report explains the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which outlines the process of transferring power from one U.S. president to the next. The report also explains the amendments Congress has made to the federal law since its adoption in 1964.

A key feature of the law: providing the president-elect and vice president-elect with the facilities, funding and services needed to help them prepare to take on their new duties, including office space, travel expenses and the use of government aircraft.

The report also offers a brief history of the Presidential Transition Act. Before its enactment,

“the methods for transferring information and responsibility between Administrations were developed in an ad hoc fashion,” according to the report. “In addition, the political party organization of the incoming President was the primary source of funding for transition expenses.”

The report also notes that the president’s budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year included a request for $9.62 million to cover the U.S. General Services Administration’s expenses associated with the 2020-21 presidential transition. His budget proposal for the General Services Administration for the 2021 fiscal year included a request for $9.9 million to fund the presidential transition.

Congress allocated that money to the General Services Administration, the agency that provides support to incoming presidents and their transition teams. According to the report, federal funds “also were appropriated to the White House Office of Administration ($8 million) and the National Archives and Records Administration ($18 million) for presidential transition-related activities.”

Presidential TransitionsStephanie Smith. Congressional Research Service, February 2008.

This report offers a broad overview of the presidential transition process and the laws and policies governing it as of early 2008. The 38-page report discusses funding for presidential transitions going back to 1968, when voters elected Richard Nixon to replace President Lyndon Baines Johnson. It also raises questions about whether the transition period gives a president-elect enough time to prepare for the presidency.

“A review of the literature on presidential transitions indicates that another major concern pertains to time, or a lack of it, in completing everything that needs to be accomplished by a President-elect in the 11-week period between an election and an inauguration,” according to the report.

Want more help covering the presidential transfer of power? Check out our tip sheet offering advice for journalists from Barbara A. Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, and our explainer on the Electoral College.

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