Frequently Asked Questions about Presidential Transitions
A presidential transition is the process of planning for a new presidential term. That can include a new president entering office or a president starting a second term.
While campaigning to win an election, presidential contenders and a president seeking reelection should be laying the groundwork to govern for the next four years.
Presidential candidates do this by establishing transition teams, which are legally separate organizations from presidential campaigns. Transition teams are responsible for organizing the personnel vetting, policy planning and management agendas to turn campaign promises into governing.
Incumbents seeking reelection should view the preelection and post-election periods as a transition. They can use this time as an opportunity to plan for changes in the Cabinet and other leadership positions, and to craft second-term policy and management agendas.
Presidents must be ready to govern on Inauguration Day. With only about 75 days between Election Day and the inauguration, a transition team must create a plan for governing should its candidate win.
An incoming president is responsible for making more than 4,000 political appointments, overseeing a budget of roughly $6 trillion, and managing a huge organization that employs more than 2 million federal employees and more than 2 million military and reserve forces. An incumbent president is likely to face turnover in key politically appointed positions along with a wide range of domestic and foreign policy challenges.
Preparation is always crucial, but even more so as the country faces economic uncertainty, competing domestic priorities and potential national security threats. Whoever takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2025, must be ready to respond to potential crises such as natural disasters and a host of foreign policy and national security issues.
No, presidents running for reelection also should prepare for a transition to a second term.
Veterans of both Democratic and Republican White Houses recommend administrations think of the beginning of a second term as a transition from the first rather than a continuation of the status quo. By reevaluating policy priorities and anticipating personnel changes, a transition enables presidents to be better prepared for success early in their second term.
Even if the president wins reelection, the administration should still prepare for significant personnel turnover. For the last three reelected presidents, an average of 46% of top officials serving at the end of the first term resigned from those positions within the first six months of a second term. Meanwhile, the incumbent administration must also meet legal requirements to prepare materials and succession plans so that if there is a change in administration, the government is ready for a peaceful transfer of power.
Candidates should begin planning by no later than the spring of an election year.
The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition® offers a detailed guide to help candidates and their campaigns through the process.
Not at all.
Presidents must be ready to govern on day one. They have an obligation to fully plan the start of their administration. Many important tasks, such as getting security clearances for top national security staff, take too long to wait until an election victory to start.
Recent changes to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 require federal agencies to plan for a transition, so current government leaders also have legal obligations to plan early.
The scope, structure and goals of transition teams differ depending on the priorities of each candidate. However, all presidential transition teams are responsible for at least three primary tasks.
- Prepare to select more than 4,000 presidential appointees, including more than 1,200 who require Senate confirmation. A transition team for a new president must identify, recruit and guide enough candidates through the hiring process to ensure an administration is prepared on Inauguration Day. Many potential staff members need to go through a stringent security clearance and ethics review, and the transition team needs to prepare nominees for that process.
- Develop a clear policy agenda. The transition team must determine a set of legislative, executive and agency proposals based on the campaign platform, focusing on actions for day one, and for the first 10, 100, 200 and 300 days after the inauguration.
- Evaluate how federal agencies can contribute to the president’s management and policy agenda. Transition teams must understand the structure and goals of more than 100 federal agencies, and then develop a plan for how each agency can help enact the president’s goals.
In addition to the candidate transition teams, three other groups play an essential role in transition planning.
- The sitting presidential administration: According to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, sitting administrations must prepare for a transition even if the current president is running for reelection. The White House is responsible for establishing a council of leaders in the federal government to prepare for a transition.
- Federal departments and agencies: Senior agency officials responsible for transition activities begin preparing at least six months before the election. Across all federal departments and agencies, these officials build internal teams to provide timely and relevant information for incoming senior leaders about policies, operations, budgets and personnel. If there is a new president, these transition teams will prepare the new administration’s team regarding agency policies and programs, as well as budgets and other issues. The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition® offers a detailed guide to assist senior career leaders through the process.
- The General Services Administration: The GSA provides funding, office space and administrative support to the major candidates in the months preceding the election, beginning immediately following the major political conventions. The GSA also serves as a liaison between transitions teams and federal agencies.
The GSA gives to “eligible” campaigns, defined as “a candidate of a major party [as defined in 26 U.S.C. §9002(6)] for President or Vice-President of the United States; and … any other candidate who has been determined by the Administrator to be among the principal contenders for the general election to such offices.”
To receive public support, presidential campaigns must establish a separate transition organization, disclose financial supporters, and release and enforce ethics plans for transition team members.
Presidential transition teams are nonprofit entities, separate from the campaigns, and require their own space, people and money.
Since 1963, transitions have been paid for by a combination of private and public funds. In 2010, Congress increased the amount of assistance available to transition teams.
For the 2020 election, Congress appropriated $9.62 million for transition activities to each eligible campaign. Prior to the election, eligible candidates receive support from the General Services Administration in the form of office space and IT equipment. After the election, the president-elect and vice president-elect’s transition team is eligible for continued support and funds to cover payroll, travel and related expenses.
If candidates plan to accept government support, they must disclose privately raised funds to the public, which are subject to a $5,000 per person limit.
Most recent presidential transitions have each cost more than $10 million.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s transition cost roughly $9.3 million, about $4 million of which was raised from private donors.
In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s transition team was the first to take advantage of the newly amended preelection funding provisions approved by Congress in 2010. The Romney team received $8.9 million in government funds. The team spent an additional $1.4 million in privately raised funds, much of which was returned to donors after Romney’s 2012 defeat.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s transition effort was allocated $6 million in government funding, while another $1 million was set aside to help prepare new appointees. The Trump team raised more than $6.5 million from private donors.
The GSA reported in February 2021 that Biden raised $22.1 million from private donors for his transition and had spent $24 million as he prepared to assume the presidency. Payroll expenses topped the list at $13.6 million, followed by travel and event expenses at more than $5 million. In the weeks following the election, the Biden transition team received $6.3 million in federal funding.
In the event that the president-elect is the incumbent, federal transition funds for post-election transition activities are returned to the Treasury. The law allows for the GSA to use funds to train new political appointees throughout a president’s term.
The law allows all major candidates to continue using the facilities and support provided by the government until the GSA administrator is able to determine the apparent successful candidates for the office of president and vice president. Recent amendments to the Presidential Transition Act now state that if there is no clear winner five days after the election, the GSA releases transition services on an equitable basis until there is a clear winner. Those amendments also included a package of reforms that establish clear guidelines for certifying and counting electoral votes.