June 20, 2024

Second-term turnover of Bush, Obama political appointees: A challenge faced by two-term presidents  

Given the increasing delays presidents face in getting senior leaders confirmed by the Senate, it is important to understand how long those officials remain in their roles once confirmed. While our previous analysis highlights year three as a time of high appointee turnover during  a president’s first term, incumbent presidents entering a second term face even greater challenges. 

Incumbent administrations transitioning to a second term have historically confronted significant headwinds. The fifth year can be encumbered by political opposition in Congress, and the departure of knowledgeable officials can make it even more difficult for an administration to achieve its policy goals. Without sufficient personnel and resources dedicated to second term personnel planning, two-term administrations will miss an important opportunity to gain early momentum following reelection. 

Our analysis examines the turnover of Senate confirmed presidential appointees during the second term of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in major departments and agencies, excluding ambassadors, U.S. marshals and attorneys. 

Turnover across terms

In year five, Bush and Obama experienced average annual turnover rates of 38% and 28% respectively, the highest in their entire presidencies. For context, Bush had 135 departures out of 353 tracked positions and Obama had 101 departures out 359 positions. For Obama, this was more than doubled the peak annual turnover in his first term (13%); for Bush, the second-term peak was nearly double the first term’s (20%). 

Years six through eight for both presidents exceeded or were comparable to their third-year turnover levels, highlighting the sustained volatility in personnel departures throughout the second term. 

Personnel turnover in the fifth year is an early management obstacle for administrations starting a second term. These findings demonstrate the urgency of second term planning if incumbent administrations are to expeditiously fill senior leadership positions as they become vacant. 

Note: Data includes Senate-confirmed positions excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. Yearly average turnover is weighted by the number of positions tracked for each president. 

Second-term turnover by department 

In every department, the Bush and Obama administrations experienced significantly higher turnover during the second term compared to the first. The highest turnover rate was at the Department of Education under Bush at 128%, meaning that there were 23 departures for 18 tracked positions during his time in office. Several other departments under Bush also experienced turnover rates that exceeded 100%, including the departments of Housing and Urban Development (109%), Justice (104%), Transportation (113%) and State (115%). These departments experienced several departures from the same position within one term. Departures at assistant secretary level at Bush’s Department of Education were frequent, as officials rarely remained for more than two years. 

While the Obama administration had relatively lower levels of turnover, all departments exceeded 50% turnover except for the Department of Labor (47%). For Obama, the Department of Transportation had a peak turnover rate of 100%, nearly 10 times the turnover compared to his first term (13%). 

Note: Data covers Senate-confirmed positions in executive CFO Act agencies, excluding ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The time period covered in the first term is from the beginning of the administration through April 1 of the fourth year. 

An incumbent administration must balance the difficult tasks of managing ongoing government operations while preparing prior to the election for a transition to a possible second term. The rigor and planning needed to successfully staff some of the highest-ranking positions in the executive branch is critical for a successful second term administration.

This blog post was authored by Husam AlZubaidy, an associate at the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition.