On the final episode of Transition Lab, David Marchick is joined by guest host Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. As one of America’s leading journalists, Alcindor covered a transition like no other, one marked by a global pandemic and an economic recession, a racial reckoning, a president’s attempts to overturn a fair election, and an attack on the Capitol.
In this episode, Alcindor interviews Transition Lab’s regular host, David Marchick, about this historic period. Marchick, director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, describes how the Trump and Biden teams approached this transition cycle, how the delay in ascertainment and Capitol insurrection impacted the transition, and how this transition stacks up against previous ones.
Coming soon! Season two of the Partnership for Public Service podcast. This is the last episode on the 2020 transition, but the podcast will return later in the year with a new focus. Stay tuned.
Read the highlights:
Marchick discussed how the Biden team prepared for an uncertain transition cycle.
Marchick: “[The Biden team] anticipated almost everything. …It anticipated a delay in the outcome of the election because so many people would vote remotely or by mail; it anticipated a decent likelihood of a delayed ascertainment; it anticipated the impact of an uncooperative president and parts of the administration; and it anticipated a lack of cooperation from certain agencies. …For each of these risks or potential challenges, [the team] built a mitigation strategy.”
Marchick assessed whether agencies cooperated with the Biden team.
Marchick: “Most agencies kicked into high gear once ascertainment was made. They wanted to work with the Biden team, do what was right for the country and implement the law. …Certain agencies—the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget—simply just didn’t want to help. …With those agencies, there was real damage done. That damage was ameliorated by the fact that President-elect Biden had so much experience and his team had so much experience. …But it’s still really unfortunate that there was a delay and I think it hurt the country.”
Marchick described how the Capitol insurrection impacted the transition.
Marchick: “There’s only 78 days [between Election Day and Inauguration Day]. Because of the delayed ascertainment, the Biden team only had 57 days. And because of the entire episode on the Capitol—not just on Jan. 6, but in the days leading up to it—[the team] lost another week or 10 days. So that brings the transition down [about] 45 days, which is about the same as George W. Bush had because of the delayed Florida outcome. …[The delay] further slowed the Senate process, which was already slow because of the Georgia [Senate] elections, and it impeded the Biden team’s ability to get people confirmed. …[The riot] shocked the nation, and I think we’re seeing the impact of that today.”
Marchick talked about the pace of Biden appointments thus far.
Marchick: “[The team] built a machine, a personnel machine. …Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, [has] appointed more than twice as many officials to the White House staff than any other previous president at this time. …President-elect Biden [has] nominated 52 [Senate-confirmed officials]. The previous record was 42 by President Obama. …[The team also] had 1,100 [non-confirmed officials] sworn in by Inauguration Day. That is more than Obama and Trump had combined on Day 100. The personnel team has been fantastic and highly productive.”
Marchick compared this transition to previous ones.
Marchick: “You can’t say this is worse than 1860 when states seceded and [we approached] the Civil War. …In 1932, [there was] the Great Depression. We had bank runs in 25 states, Hitler came to power and Hoover did nothing. Both Roosevelt and Marriner Eccles, who was the head of the Federal Reserve, begged Hoover to call a bank holiday—to stop the banks from running and to stop people from losing their homes and their savings—and Hoover refused. That was a pretty bad transition. But as Ken Burns said [in an earlier podcast], no shots had been fired, nobody had been killed, no arms had been raised in any previous transition. So I would say that this one has to be somewhere between 1860 and 1932, ameliorated by the fact that the Biden team was so experienced and so buttoned up. It was a bad transition this year.”
Marchick outlined several reforms that would strengthen future transitions.
Marchick: “I think there are a few things the Congress should look at. For ascertainment, there has to be a lower standard for starting the process. We could have close elections again (actually this was not really a close election) and we could have contested elections again, but the president-elect and the challenger need access to the services and support from the GSA and the government earlier. I think that the challenger should get more money for staffing and everything should be moved up earlier. …78 days is really not enough to get started on Jan. 20. I’m confident that Congress will look at that and … improve the laws.”
Chris Liddell is the Trump administration’s leading transition expert. A deputy chief of staff, he previously served as executive director of the Romney transition team and helped author The Romney Readiness Project, a comprehensive presidential transition guide. In this episode of Transition Lab, Liddell joins host David Marchick to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of the 2020 transition. Liddell talks about managing a delayed post-election transition, his experiences working with the Biden team and how he reacted to the recent attack on the Capitol.
Read the highlights:
Liddell described his approach to planning for a second Trump term.
Liddell: “The first area that I wanted to focus on was on policy. …In January 2020, we had an off-site [meeting] with all of the major deputies here at the White House and set down not only the policy objectives for 2020, but [also examined] how they would flow into 2021—in particular, some of the most significant legislative ideas. …I [also wanted to] think about how we could structurally change the White House to make it significantly more efficient.”
Liddell described how he helped agencies plan for a Biden victory.
Liddell: “In April of last year, we sent out an initial memo to agency and department heads providing guidance on what their obligations were. …We worked with the GSA in particular, which was then working with agencies to put together the briefing books and all of the requirements that we would need once the election happened. So we had these main markers and below the surface of those markers, we were just working away steadily with career people to make sure that we were as ready as possible. We tried to emphasize that despite the politics out in the open, the transition side of things should continue as normally as possible.”
Liddell explained how the delay in ascertainment affected his work.
Liddell: “That was one of the most frustrating periods I’ve ever seen. We were just on hold, we couldn’t do anything. …[GSA Administrator] Emily Murphy was in a terrible position for that period of time. We were literally sitting on our hands, having done all the work but not being able to do anything. …We need to look at a solution where the incoming administration can get access to a lot of the things that it needs as a result of the Transition Act, regardless of where the politics and the dispute associated with the election are. …We should have legislation that allows a provisional ascertainment to occur so that an incoming administration [and] the president-elect can get security briefings for a lot of the time-sensitive issues regardless of whether the formal election has been settled or not.”
Liddell discussed whether agencies cooperated with Biden officials during the transition.
Liddell: “Over 90% of the agencies and components went about the job really well. …There were some reluctant people, but I rang them up and basically appealed to their better side, and we managed to smooth it over. …There were some agencies that I think were uncooperative. And I tried my best to do [fix those situations], but I didn’t really have the teeth to do it. …It’s an unusual situation to have the outgoing administration in charge of the transition to the incoming one. That relies to some extent on goodwill. And when goodwill is absent, it’s hard to actually make [agency review] happen.”
Liddell described how he reacted to the recent attack on the Capitol.
Liddell: “I was in the West Wing working on transition matters when it all broke. I saw it on the television screen at the same time as everyone else. I was horrified initially and heartbroken afterwards. The event … was a disaster for the country [and] from the transition point of view, it made everything exponentially more difficult.”
Liddell explained why he chose not to resign after the attack.
Liddell: “I respected that some people decided that this was their opportunity to leave. I came to a different conclusion. I felt that for the following couple of weeks leading up to [the inauguration], it was probably more important rather than less important that I was here. …To walk away when the most important time was coming up, and at a time where tensions had gone through the roof, I just didn’t feel like that was my duty. My duty was to be here.”
Liddell described the mood among White House staff in the days leading up to the inauguration.
Liddell: “We’re down to a core staff now, a skeleton staff. I think everyone’s focused on [the inauguration]. …The relationship with the Biden transition team has been as good as it could possibly be. It’s been challenging at times, particularly during the last couple of weeks, but most of my interactions over the last few days have been about how we land the plane as well as we possibly 12:00 p.m. [on Inauguration Day]. Those of us that are left here are really focused on that.”
Liddell reflected on his time leading the Trump transition effort.
Liddell: “This has personally been the toughest assignment of my life. None of us want to go through what we went through during the last few weeks again. …But maybe I can finish on a slightly more positive note. In the last few weeks, we’ve thrown just about every possible bad scenario that you can think of at the country. And I believe we will have a successful and peaceful transition tomorrow. The institutions of this government have held. …At 12:00 tomorrow, President-elect Biden will become President Biden. The incoming transition team will be here, set up, ready to go. I think we’ve covered every possible scenario and I think this will be a successful transition. So in the most difficult circumstances that are humanly possible, the institution of the U.S. government, and the transition associated with it, will be successful.”
This week’s episode of Transition Lab features Yohannes Abraham, executive director of the Biden-Harris transition. He previously worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and held several positions in the Obama White House, including senior advisor to the National Economic Council and deputy assistant to the president for the Office of Public Engagement and International Affairs. Later, he helped direct Obama’s 2012 campaign and served as chief operating officer for the newly established Obama Foundation.
In this episode, host David Marchick spoke with Abraham about leading the Biden-Harris team, the lessons he has learned from previous transitions, and how the country’s health and economic crises have affected his work.
This week’s episode of Transition Lab focuses on the Senate confirmation process with Phil Schiliro and Candi Wolff.
Wolff, the head of global government affairs at Citi, served as the Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs under President George W. Bush. She was the first woman to hold that position. Schiliro worked on Capitol Hill for nearly three decades before serving as congressional liaison for the 2008 Obama transition and director of legislative affairs for the Obama White House. He helped pass numerous laws during his long career, including the 1990 Clean Air Act and the Affordable Care Act.
In this episode, host David Marchick speaks with Schiliro and Wolff about how legislative affairs teams help move presidential nominees through the Senate, the slow Senate confirmation process and how President-elect Biden might manage his relationship with the Senate in 2021.
Read the highlights:
Schiliro described working in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.
Schiliro: “To do the job right, you have to be saying ‘no’ to Congress a lot during the day and then, in the late afternoon, come back to the White House and tell White House staff ‘no’ on what they want Congress to do. …People on both sides are tired of you saying ‘no.’ …I don’t think there’s another office in the White House that is as involved [in Congress] as the Office of Legislative Affairs because virtually everything the president does touches on Congress.”
Schiliro explained why the Senate confirmation process takes so long.
Schiliro: “Each nominee goes through a vetting process ahead of time, but there’s a second vetting process after the person’s nominated. …One of the big issues becomes prioritizing the nominees after the Cabinet. People on Capitol Hill may have different views than people in the White House on what that sequence is going to be. …There’ll be committees that have to do hearings for multiple nominees, so you’re stretching the committees to capacity. Then there’s the problem of floor time. …The White house will have priorities [and] the Senate leadership will have different priorities. …And [sometimes] nominees become pawns for a policy dispute, [leading] senators to put holds on nominees. …When you add all that together, it ends up being a very complicated, lengthy process.”
Schiliro and Wolff described how increased partisanship has affected the Senate confirmation process.
Schiliro: “There’s always been partisanship, but some of the norms that used to be in place have slowly eroded over time. …We had a situation that bothers me because she was a friend of mine. Cassandra Butts, who was President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to the Bahamas, had a hearing in May 2014. But then holds were put on her by two senators. She waited over 800 days for a vote and she died during that process. …One senator put a hold on her because he objected to the Iran nuclear deal. Another senator was upset about something that he thought President Obama did, knew he was friends with Cassandra and put a hold on her to inflict pain on the president.”
Wolff: “Members on both sides of the aisle feel like they can just hold up the nominees for unrelated reasons, not because of the qualification or their ability to do the job. …You have to have the team and the people who can work off the holds and figure out if you can come up with a solution. It’s incredibly frustrating.”
Schiliro and Wolff discussed how the Georgia runoffs might affect the Biden administration’s pre-inaugural political appointment work.
Wolff: “The process is going to be slow because we have to wait for the results in Georgia. And then after that, you have to have the two leaders meet to determine who’s on the committees. All of those processes have been put on hold. Normally they would be completed in December. …Right now, the Biden team can’t begin those discussions. And is the ratio [of Republicans to Democrats in the Senate] 50-50? Unfortunately, [these factors] will initially slow the process.”
Schiliro: “Layered on top of that is the coronavirus pandemic, which is impacting the ability of senators to actually be in Washington. Ideally, we’ll know the results in Georgia quickly, but if they’re close races, that could take four, five or six days, and the Senate will be in limbo during that period. …I would expect a slower process for any nominee that’s not a consensus nominee.”
Wolff explained why the COVID-19 pandemic might lead to faster Senate confirmations.
Wolff: “Crises tend to drive action. I see the pandemic as a driver that will focus attention on the Department of Health and Human Services. The Biden team can make the point that to get the vaccines approved, to get the distribution done, to deal with the health crisis, you have to have someone at HHS. [This] should result in a faster confirmation process.”
Wolff and Schiliro described their proudest moments in the White House and biggest legislative accomplishments.
Wolff: “It was a privilege to work [in the White House], provide public service and support the American people. …The legislation that I’m most pleased with is when one of the last trade agreements that got through. I remember that passing with one vote in the House and feeling really good about knowing where the vote count was going to be.”
Schiliro: “It was a combination of things—trying to give the president a realistic, accurate assessment as we were developing strategies of what would work and what wouldn’t work, and having a team at the White House Office of Legislative Affairs that was just terrific. …If I had to pick a piece of legislation, it was the Affordable Care Act because it meant so much to the president, it was difficult to do and we had to navigate so many problems.”
Ted Kaufman and President-elect Joe Biden go way back. Kaufman helped organize Biden’s first Senate office in 1972 and served as his chief of staff for nearly two decades. Kaufman left the Senate in 1994, but later returned to fill his old boss’s seat after Biden became Barack Obama’s vice president in 2009. More recently, Kaufman helped pass two laws, one in 2010 and another in 2015, that improved the presidential transition process. He currently co-chairs the Biden-Harris transition team.
In this episode of Transition Lab—the first to focus on the Biden transition to power—host David Marchick asks Kaufman to discuss Biden’s transition planning process. Marchick also discusses with Kaufman how he became a leading transition expert, why the Biden-Harris transition will serve as a model for future transition teams and how he has approached the unique challenges of the 2020 transition cycle.
Read the highlights:
Kaufman recalled Joe Biden asking him to run the transition:
Kaufman: “It was in the spring. We had been talking … about the campaign. I think maybe I mentioned the transition in passing, but [did not say] anything about if we ought to start or whatnot. I don’t think there’s ever been a transition that started in the early spring. And then he called me, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this transition and I think we ought to get started right now.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what … if you go to one of these Partnership for Public Services get-togethers, you learn one thing: You can’t start too early.’ And so, I said to him that I would start it. …It was really one of the smartest things we [did].”
Kaufman described the relationship between the campaign and transition teams.
Kaufman: “Until Election Day, the campaign [was] by far the most important part of the Biden effort. We talked with campaign [staff] and cleared everything we did all the time. …The transition is not about making policy. It’s about getting to the bottom of what a President Biden would want to do when he became president. …We got from the campaign all of the policy statements he made, and we collected them into what we called a campaign promises book. Then, the transition took the book and sliced it and diced so that people [responsible for] each agency knew what the Biden policies were for that specific agency.”
Kaufman explained why the transition team embraced the motto, “Whatever happens in the transition, stays in the transition.”
Kaufman: “We knew that there would be incredible interest in what was happening in all parts of the transition, especially who was going to get positions in the administration. It’s like the greatest parlor game or rabbit hunt in Washington during the period that the transition is ongoing. Who’s going to get a job? When are they going to get them? Who’s going to get what? Who’s going to be in line? Those types of things. Everyone took [the transition team’s] responsibility seriously. [As a result], there were very few accurate reports of what was happening during the transition.”
Kaufman described building a diverse transition team.
Kaufman: “President-elect Biden’s most important commitment was having an administration that reflected America. And I must tell you, because of the incredible number of highly qualified people interested in serving the transition, this was no problem. And we turned out to have a transition that genuinely mirrored America in just about every way”
Kaufman reflected on planning a virtual transition.
Kaufman: “When we started [the transition], we were just about a month into the period when businesses [and] schools had been shut down, and we had no idea how long that would last. We also were just learning to be efficient on Zoom and other platforms. We realized we needed to plan for a virtual transition, and we did. It increased the degree of difficulty considerably. But thanks to good planning, coordination, and communication, [the transition] has been seamless.”
Kaufman discussed the impact of his transition legislation:
Kaufman: “In 2010 … the Senate passed my bill, Senate bill 3196. It moved up the date that the transition teams get access to office space, computers, phones and funding from the government. Prior to the legislation, support from the General Services Administration only kicked in after the election. …I said before about how difficult it is to have a transition in the most complex organization in the history of the world. You’re supposed to basically do it in 70 days. What my bill did was increase it from 70 to more like 140 days. Instead of getting the financing help after the election, you got the financing help after the convention.”
Kaufman reflected on Biden’s Cabinet nominees:
Kaufman: “I think these nominees [are] highly qualified. They’re experienced. And they’re breaking barriers. …The first person of color to run the Defense Department, the first female to be the Director of National Intelligence, the first gay Cabinet secretary. It’s about a half a dozen different [minority groups] that were not represented [before].”
Kaufman compared the challenges of the 2020 transition with those of 2008:
Kaufman: “I thought we [saw] the most difficult transition because of the Great Recession, but it’s nothing like this. I mean, no other transition has ever taken place with these set of challenges: a pandemic, a recession, a racial justice crisis, an unpredictable president and political polarization. I realized that we had to build off the best of what previous transitions had done—and do much more—to ensure that Vice President Biden would be ready to govern on Inauguration Day.”
Representative Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) is the chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan panel that has produced nearly 100 recommendations focused on improving the way Congress works. During this episode of Transition Lab, Kilmer joined host David Marchick to discuss the panel’s recommendations for increasing civility, bipartisanship and trust among members of Congress, helping new members transition from campaigning to governing and better preparing the institution for emergencies such as the ongoing pandemic.
Read the highlights:
Representative Kilmer described the goals of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
Kilmer: “According to polling, Congress is less popular than colonoscopies and the rock band Nickelback. There is a sense that Congress is punching below its weight. So every two or three decades, Congress creates some sort of committee to look at how to fix [the legislative branch]. We’re the latest incarnation of that. …We were tasked with looking at things like House rules and procedures, technology and innovation, and the recruitment, retention and diversity of staff, and constituent communications. We also decided to look at things that weren’t directly in our mandate, including some of the dysfunction around the budget and appropriations process, [and] things like civility and continuity of government. Our committee members decided early on that we would have a North Star mission, and that mission is to make Congress work better for the American people.”
Kilmer discussed how the committee has embraced bipartisanship.
Kilmer: “Tom Graves, who serves as our vice chair, and I made a conscious decision to have a truly bipartisan committee. …We said, “Let’s have one nonpartisan staff, one budget, one office, no red jerseys or blue jerseys.” …We hired our staff together—some of them were people with Democratic backgrounds, some with Republican backgrounds. …We would [also] meet regularly in private as a full committee. That meant we were allowed to have some honest conversations—and sometimes some really tough debates …We also experimented with mixed seating arrangements during our hearings. Rather than having Democrats sit on one side and Republicans sit on the other, we had Democrats and Republicans sit side by side. …None of that may sound like rocket science to you or to your listeners, but it’s really important in terms of how Congress functions.”
Kilmer discussed the committee’s work on emergency preparedness.
Kilmer: “We think it’s pretty important for Congress to adopt procedures in advance of emergencies, rather than in response to emergencies. …We recommended that the House update procedures to allow members to electronically add or remove their names as bill co-sponsors in 2020, and heading into 2021. …We also recommended that [congressional] committees establish telework policies, that member offices have continuity and telework plans in place, and that members of Congress get cybersecurity, telework and emergency preparedness training. …Congress does not have much in the way of emergency preparedness training. …The executive branch is way more prepared for crisis operations than Congress.”
Kilmer described the committee’s efforts to create better transitions for new members of Congress.
Kilmer: “A new member of Congress is really drinking out of the fire hose because they have to learn the job and get oriented to the job, [and] they have to hire both a Washington D.C. office and a district staff. …Our committee made some recommendations focused on changing that a bit so that orientation wasn’t just an Election Day through Jan. 3 exercise, but more [of a] real-time orientation. …We [also] made a recommendation that … [new congressional representatives] have a paid transition staffer.”
Kilmer described how Congress has navigated the need to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kilmer: “The capacity for committees to work remotely has generally been agreed to by both parties. The discussion around voting on the House floor has been unfortunately more partisan. There is now, in the House rules, the ability to vote by proxy. And you’ve seen a good number of members—either because of a medical condition, a concern about the rising number of cases, or because they have someone at home who might be high risk—vote by proxy. Unfortunately that has not been universally embraced within Congress.”
Kilmer explained what he’s learned about Congress during his time in office.
Kilmer: “I’ve learned a lot about why Congress works and why it doesn’t. You see very obvious instances of dysfunction, and I think some of it is related to the ability to constructively engage members of Congress. You know, the Kilmer family has a new puppy. Like many families, we got a pandemic puppy, an Australian shepherd. [She] is adorable, but I’ve discovered that if you don’t constructively engage Penny, she chooses the furniture. And that kind of happens in Congress too. When people don’t feel invested and engaged, they go to the furniture. They engage in things that contribute to incivility and contribute to dysfunction.”
Kilmer discussed the importance of fostering bipartisanship in the next Congress.
Kilmer: “I represent a district that needs government to work well, and that means we need to get some pucks into the net to help people, whether we’re talking about rebuilding our economy, or expanding access to healthcare or crushing this virus. My constituents actually need government to work. And that means legislation has to pass the House, pass the Senate and get signed by the president. …[So] we’re going to have to find common ground.”
Host David Marchick, along with award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, former George W. Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten, and historian Eric Rauchway, reflects on the current state of the transition, the costs of delay and how this moment will be remembered.
Melody Barnes has a distinguished political career. She has worked in various roles on Capitol Hill, held senior positions with the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign and transition teams, and led the White House Domestic Policy Council from 2009-2012. Currently, she is the co-director for policy and public affairs at the University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative. In this episode of Transition Lab, Barnes joined host David Marchick to discuss post-election transition planning, how new administrations plan and implement policy and why we need a smooth transfer of power today.
Read the highlights:
Barnes described how a transition team sets priorities after its candidate wins the presidential election.
Barnes: “Immediately, the transition begins to think about what the president is going to do on the day that he or she is inaugurated. For better for worse, America has become fixated on the first 100 days. …So [new administrations look at] executive orders, what’s been done by a prior administration [and] what might be overturned because of the law. [They also examine] what’s going to happen on Capitol Hill [and] the first pieces of legislation that a new administration wants to push. …It really is three-dimensional chess when a new administration walks in the door.”
Barnes discussed how the Obama administration decided which issues to focus on early in its first term.
Barnes: “People often questioned why this versus that. Why not do a big push on immigration coming out of the blocks? Why so big and comprehensive a health care bill right out of the blocks? Those were decisions that we made based both on substance and timing. We believed we had political capital that we could spend [and] that the nation had been focused on the issue of health care, [which] was also wrapped up in the issue of the economy. So we were thinking about all of those things—the politics, the substance and the signals that [we] were sending as [we made those] decisions.”
Barnes explained how transition teams process information after the election.
Barnes: “For the transition, it feels as though several trucks back up to the front door and unload reports, documents and lists of names. They just come spilling out. …And [transition teams are] trying to figure out how to … sift through what’s coming in that may or may not be useful. [In 2008], we created a process for tagging and accepting all of the reports and ideas that were coming through the door so that we would have access to them. And there was a very organized meeting process that was put in place so that we could talk to people. …What you don’t want to do is look at everyone that has supported the campaign … and all the expertise that sits on the other side of those doors and outside of government, and say, ‘Thank you so much. See you later, never.’”
Barnes offered advice on how to approach landing a job in a new administration.
Barnes: “[Share your information with] those who are doing personnel or those on the outside— whether it’s a caucus of members of Congress, or others that have a relationship with the campaign and the transition. …That’s another opportunity to put your information in a place where it will be received and processed. I also tell people that if you don’t get a call in the first few months, it doesn’t mean that you’ll never get a call. …Presidential personnel are getting thousands upon thousands upon thousands of resumes. So it will take a while, even if you are quite qualified, before they may turn to your information.”
Barnes discussed how new administrations work to implement big policy ideas.
Barnes: “One of the things that I learned working for Senator [Ted] Kennedy was that the best policy processes often begin with people putting lots of ideas on the table. Some of them are wacky, but possess the germ of something interesting and important. …It is the process of [refining] those ideas and engaging with the policy people, the legislative affairs people, the political people, the communications team and others to create something that has a snowball’s chance of getting over the finish line.”
Barnes explained why we need a smooth transition now more than ever.
Barnes: “Even as we go through this period where the current president will not agree that President-elect Biden is, in fact, President-elect Biden, the health of the nation [and] our national economy hang in the balance. [The Biden-Harris agency review] teams should be able to meet with folks at the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to do planning and work around [developing and distributing a coronavirus vaccine].”
Barnes discussed the challenges President-elect Biden might face working in a divided government.
Barnes: “It’s certainly easier when you don’t have divided government. People have often spoken about the fact that the president-elect has a long standing relationship with [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and long-standing Hill relationships from his days in the White House and the Senate. I think those relationships will and could make a difference when there is agreement to move forward. …[But] the road will be challenging.”
Marchick jokingly asked Barnes whether she was upset about Kamala Harris’ ascension to the vice presidency, meaning that Barnes would no longer be considered one of the most senior women of color ever to serve in the White House.
Barnes: “I think about colleagues like [former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy] Mona Sutphen and others. What an amazing group of women to have as peers. And I would venture to say that, to a person, we would all say that this is one of the proudest moments for each of us as women and women of color. …There is a history of political engagement and activism—from anti-lynching campaigns and suffrage to civil rights and so many other issues— that is a leitmotif that plays behind the careers [of government leaders who are women of color]. To see Kamala Harris standing there and accepting the congratulations of the crowd when the election had been called was just one of the proudest moments that I have ever had.”
On this week’s episode of Transition Lab, host David Marchick unpacks the contested 2000 presidential election with David J. Barram, who served as administrator of the General Services Administration from 1996-2000. Barram discusses the process of ascertainment, his work during the 2000 election and how that contest differed from the 2020 race.
Find out more at the Center for Presidential Transition.
John Podesta served as President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, founded the Center for American Progress, was the co-chair of Barack Obama’s presidential transition in 2008-2009 and chaired Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 while overseeing her pre-election transition activities. Podesta talked to Transition Lab Host David Marchick about his transition experiences during victorious and unsuccessful elections, offered advice on political and judicial appointments, suggested climate change will be high on Joe Biden’s agenda if he wins and discussed the challenges Biden may face with the Trump White House if he becomes the president-elect.
Read the highlights:
John Podesta talked about the importance of a president-elect picking the White House staff before making Cabinet selections.
Podesta: A lesson that I learned from the Bill Clinton transition that I think was really helpful in the Obama transition was that Clinton prioritized spending all those early days selecting his Cabinet, but he did that to the exclusion of picking his White House staff. …I think he tripped up in not spending more time on his White House staff early. I raised that with then Senator Obama…We discussed this, and we corrected that [during the 2008-2009 transition] and really built the White House staff first, which helped him then fill out his Cabinet… I think that was a better way to run the transition
Podesta discussed the need for a new president to get political appointees quickly confirmed by the Senate.
Podesta: I think you could…make quick decisions, make good decisions, accelerate that process, pressure the Senate to act and be fully engaged in getting your people inside the government. That’s something I think that was particularly slow under President Clinton. We got the Cabinet done right away and then the rest took forever. We improved upon that with Obama, but I think you can really jack that up.
Dave Marchick asked Podesta about the transition from President Clinton to George W. Bush in 2000 when he was Clinton’s chief of staff and the election dispute delayed the outcome.
Podesta: We tried to be professional…to give people a real sense of what the challenges are, what the opportunities are, what the budget looks like, what the inspector generals were saying about the problems that needed correction. …We took that responsibility quite seriously. [Before the election was decided], Governor Bush and his team were able to get access to the highest-level secrets so that they could begin to prepare for their approach to the big security challenges that the country was facing. I think one of the effects of that truncated period of time was we were unable to put the focus of their security team on the threat of Osama bin Laden that was well-documented in the 9/11 Commission report.
Marchick asked Podesta why he was picked to lead Obama’s 2008 transition when he had supported Hillary Clinton during that year’s presidential primaries.
Podesta: I was friendly with Obama. I worked with him when he was a senator when I was running the Center for American Progress. …I was somewhat surprised when he asked me, but I think he thought my experience as White House chief of staff was quite relevant. … I think to his credit, Obama really liked and respected people who would challenge him, fight with him…He wasn’t paranoid about having people who were tough and certainly not sycophants around him.
Marchick asked Podesta about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 pre-election transition planning.
Podesta: We ran a full-blown pre-election transition. …Over the years, it has become more acceptable to be serious about working on the transition before the election. …In Hillary’s case, we had probably a bigger team than even I had in 2008 [with Obama] because it was just more politically acceptable. It wasn’t viewed as presumptuous or measuring the drapes. …One of the things that we were able to do was to take her promises on the campaign trail and think about how we would really be able to execute [them.] That policy process was very well done before the election. Unfortunately we didn’t get to utilize it.
Marchick asked Podesta about the pain of losing the 2016 presidential election.
Podesta: [Election night 2016 ] was emotional…for everybody. There were thousands of supporters that were still in the Javits Center. We were still looking at the vote count when I went over to buck people up as best as I could. …It was one of the hardest things I’ve probably ever had to do. …Even though we were still counting votes, we were behind. …[Hillary] Clinton gave a really magnificent and gracious speech the next morning to the team. But look, those weeks were brutal…shutting the office down and trying to deal with…a lot of people around the country who really felt crushed.
Marchick asked Podesta whether he expects the White House will ensure a smooth transition if President Trump loses the election, especially given the many crises facing the country.
Podesta: We are coming into a transition where you have a very kind of erratic decision decision-making structure… where you have a president who is likely to say the election was rigged if he loses… It’s a very challenging circumstance, but I think the Biden team understood this right from the get-go. It does take the commitment of the president, the president’s chief of staff and the rest of the White House structure to make it work smoothly, but they’ll get what they get, or as the president likes saying, `It is what it is.’ So they’ll just have to deal with with whatever comes their way, but they will have to… get a White House that’s up and running and functioning in a crisis mode to deal with a pandemic… and work on these other issues and problems simultaneously.
If Joe Biden wins the presidency, Marchick asked what advice Podesta would give to those seeking a political appointment.
Podesta: The best way to get a job is if…you’re perceived to have… helped Vice President Biden and Senator Harris get elected. But they want to reach beyond just the people in that camp. …A lot of this is obviously the way professional headhunting works, which is you’re looking for talent in a variety of different places, but there are also people who kind of come into the process by putting their hand up and I would encourage people to do that. …You can demonstrate that you have some support, but you don’t want to be a pest. You have to find the right balance between…having a few key members of Congress…make a phone call or two, but if you overdo that, you can annoy people too.
Podesta suggested that Biden should make judicial nominations and the Supreme Court a priority if he is victorious.
Podesta: I have my criticisms of the way both [federal appeals court judge] Merrick Garland wasn’t considered [by the Senate for the Supreme Court] in 2016 and the way they [the Republicans] accelerated Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination [for the Supreme Court] in 2020, but you see how much they [the Trump administration] prioritized that. They have filled up the [judicial] seats. …[The Biden team] really needs to consider their plan. How are they going to deal with a judiciary that has been packed? You know, the question for Biden is now, `Will you pack it [the Supreme Court]?’ Well, it has been packed. And so what are you going to do about that? Biden has some ideas around a commission to take a look at that, but I think they’re going to have to make that a higher priority than I think the Obama team did.
Marchick asked how Biden should handle the climate crisis if he becomes president.
Podesta: If there is a Democratic Senate, he needs a very ambitious program of investment to change the energy system, to get on track to a net zero emissions trajectory by 2050 and to have a 100% clean power sector by 2035. …Then he has to make good on that investment strategy. [He needs to] get credible globally by doing the job domestically. …An all of government approach is needed. …I think he has to put climate change at the center of his foreign policy. That doesn’t mean just returning to the Paris agreement, which I think he will do, …but he has to increase the ambition everywhere. [This involves an] economic transformation on the size and scale that’s never occurred in human history.