Josh Bolten and Denis McDonough are well-versed in presidential transitions. As former White House chiefs of staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively, they helped usher new administrations into office and prepare presidents for their second terms. In this Transition Lab episode, host David Marchick spoke with Bolten and McDonough about how they helped orchestrate successful transfers of power, fostered bipartisanship during those difficult times and helped set the standard for successful transitions today.

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough to identify a key aspect of a successful  presidential transition.

Bolten: “[Having] somebody who’s been deeply involved in personnel is an important element of transition…It was good to have someone [Clay Johnson, a long time Bush friend and former aide to Bush when he was governor of Texas] identified and in that role long in advance of the election and to have somebody who was really spending their time not focused on trying to win the election, which is what everybody else is focused on, but on what do you do after you win?”

McDonough: “You want somebody who’s close to the candidate, who has the trust of a candidate and can be discreet…and trust that…somebody is not going to try to be gaming the process…The idea of getting a good head start on [the transition] makes sense.”

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough how the first-term transitions for former Presidents Bush and Obama differed.

Bolten: “We [had] that truncated transition [due to the delayed results of the 2000 election]…Imagine having just run the marathon and as soon as you hit the tape, somebody says, ‘Oh yeah, and there’s 10 more miles.’ So it was a pretty tired team that walked into the White House on January 20, 2001. [Also], I think in part because of the contested election, some of the young folks on the [Bill] Clinton team were bitter…There were really minor things…the W’s were missing from a bunch of the keyboards…I got to my desk in my office and nobody could reach me because my phone had been forwarded to a different number. We’re laughing now. We actually kind of laughed at them at the time.”

McDonough: “Josh really set the tone. The [2008-2009] transition was happening in a state of war and it was important to make sure that there was no slip from cup to lips in the context of the transition…I had…a sense of comradery, recognizing that [the Bush people were] handing off to a new team, but given the stakes of the affair, wanted to see [President Obama] be in a position to succeed.”

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough how the Bush and Obama teams set aside their partisan differences during the transition.

Bolten: “[In 2008], Obama and [Republican presidential nominee John] McCain were fashioning their campaigns as ‘not Bush,’ and George W. Bush understood that and did not take it personally…It was kind of a political necessity for even the Republican candidate to be repudiating some of the Bush positions…We weren’t actually indifferent; we were rooting for McCain. But we stayed out [of political debates] on the president’s direction. He said, ‘Prepare a really good professional, smooth transition because this is the first transition in modern history when the United States itself is under threat and we have a national security responsibility here, and do the best possible job you can regardless of who wins this election.’”

McDonough: “President Obama felt that commitment from President Bush. As the president, you’re taking over this thing and there [are] very few people…who have been through it. And add to that…the age of Al Qaeda and the global terrorist threat that had struck us right here at home. So the fact that [President Bush] has kind of teed up a process by which to make [the transition] smoother is a very personal thing.”

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough about how Bush transition team related to the incoming Obama team.

Bolten: “We went out of our way to demonstrate to the Obama team that we were playing it straight.”

McDonough: “Totally playing that straight. And there’s a kind of philosophical question and then there’s a structural question. Philosophically and temperamentally [the question is]: Is there a reason for us to trust these guys? Then there’s a structural question, which is are the agencies set up? Josh [addressed both questions]. He communicated his interest in an effective transition, but he also built a structure that ends up being the basis now for the statute that now requires a…civil servant, [a] non-political person in each agency who’s going to stay.”

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough about the ongoing challenges of transition work and how the 2008 transition helped lay the groundwork for more success in the future.

McDonough: “I think this whole question of workspaces and computer infrastructure in this day and age is an important thing. Making sure that people are practicing good cyber hygiene…because we know that other countries are going to try to hack into the transition teams with 100% certainty.”

Bolten: “[The Obama team was] much better organized in 2016 than we were [in 2008] because we were still kind of fumbling with the playbook. Thanks to a lot of good work done by folks on the outside, including the Partnership for Public Service, by [2016], there are now statutory obligations and kind of a playbook. So as much as I appreciate the kudos being given to the Bush administration on the way out, I think what was done in the Obama administration [in 2016-2017] – and I hope what will be done at the appropriate time in the Trump administration – was much more organized and professional than [what] we were able to accomplish in 2008.”

Few have served with more distinction than Josh Bolten and Denis McDonough, chiefs of staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In this conversation, they talk about three types of transitions – into government, to a second term, and the handoff to the next administration. 

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Read the highlights from the episode:

Both Josh Bolten and Denis McDonough offer advice for the Trump administration as it approaches the end of its first term. Bolten recommends that the Trump administration appoint a transition director in preparation for his second term and encourages him to “rethink all your personnel.” Denis McDonough suggests that the president put the transition effort in the hands of “somebody you trust and is discreet.”   

Dave Marchick: “So, what would you advise people on the Trump administration to do now that…they’re coming up on year four?”   

Josh Bolten: “I mean, treat it like at a transition. Maybe appoint a transition director of some kind, somebody that the president is close to. Rethink all of your personnel and know what your priorities are…We sure weren’t thinking about how to reshuffle the Cabinet and that kind of thing. And those are all important things to think about. And that would be my advice to the Trump administration, Including to the president. But the president by personality—every president by personality—is going to be resistant to that kind of advice.”  

Denis McDonough: “I think the same lesson that we talked about earlier about a bifurcated team and new legs and fresh perspective I think applies. And so, I think a best practice is to think about how do you put this somewhere [with] somebody you trust and who’s discreet, who can help you give a good hard look at [transition].”   

According to Josh Bolten, the Bush administration made a mistake by not treating transition—either to a new administration or a new term—as an opportunity in 2004.  

Josh Bolten: “…The Bush administration made the converse mistake, we didn’t really treat [2004] as a moment of transition. I mean as farsighted and thoughtful as I think President Bush was in directing a robust transition in 2008, I cannot say that that was very high on the agenda in 2004. …Anybody who’s elected president is a competitive person and isn’t inclined to say I need to plan for defeat. Right? And so, the person sitting in the oval office is likely to have the kind of personality who is focused on how are we going to win—and what are we gonna do after we win? And there was plenty of focus on that in the Bush White House in 2004. There was not a lot of focus in 2004 on planning for what to do if we lost. And I know Andy Card, my predecessor and our good friend, who was chief of staff at the time, tried to persuade the president to think about a second term, even in victory as a moment of transition…Even in victory as a moment to just think about the staff and the Cabinet from the beginning. And presidents just aren’t inclined to do that…Good advice is to seize the opportunity. Assume you’re going to win but treat it as a transition and make sure you’re prepared to hand off in good shape in case you don’t.”  

Josh Bolten says that both Obama and McCain ran as “not Bush” during the 2008 campaign, but the president “did not take it personally” and pushed for a smooth transition despite their critiques.   

Dave Marchick: “[How was] the hand-off from the Bush administration to the Obama administration so smooth, even though…a large part of the campaign of then Senator Obama was a repudiation of some…Bush policies?”  

Josh Bolten: “What I remember is that both candidates were running against the President… Obama and McCain were fashioning their campaigns as “not Bush” and, and God bless him, George W. Bush understood that and did not take it personally… Some of the rest of us did, but, I mean, President Bush was sufficiently unpopular towards the end of his term that it was kind of a political necessity for even the Republican candidate to be repudiating some of the Bush positions. We weren’t actually indifferent—we were rooting for McCain—but on the president’s direction we stayed out…He said prepare a really good professional, smooth transition because this is the first transition in modern history when the United States itself is underthreat. And we have a national security responsibility here to do the best possible job you can regardless of who wins this election.”  

Despite its success, Josh Bolten says that the Bush transition wasn’t “exceptionally well-organized” because they “didn’t have a playbook.”   

Dave Marchick: “Why did you think it was important to actually start [planning transition] a year ahead [of the election]?”   

Josh Bolten: “It’s not, it’s not more complicated than what the president [told me] when he gave me the direction: This is the first time in modern history that the territory of the United States is actually under threat. And we cannot afford those weeks and months of people trying to learn on the job. [They have] got to be as as well prepared and as well in place as we possibly can make them, beginning on January 20th. It was just that simple. And so, we put some effort into it. I can’t say it was an exceptionally well-organized effort because we didn’t, we didn’t have a playbook…There was—at least there was certainly at the time–no manual for how to, how to turn over government.”