On October 2, the Center for Presidential Transition, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, and several presidential foundations and libraries hosted a virtual conference called “Talking Transitions: Perspectives for First-term and Second-term Administrations.” The event included former government officials, journalists and scholars to discuss managing presidential transitions during national crises.  

This week’s episode of Transition Lab features one panel discussion from this conference. Participants included a who’s who of former federal leaders and transition experts: Stephen Hadley, a longtime foreign policy specialist who served as George W. Bush’s national security advisor; Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s second-term homeland security advisor; Barbara Perry, a renowned historian and the director of presidential studies at the Miller Center; and John Podesta, a chief of staff for President Clinton who later chaired the 2008 Obama transition. Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council from 2009 to 2012, moderated the discussion. Conversation topics included how administrations address national security threats, share intelligence and enunciate long-term policy goals during presidential transitions. They also discussed the role of Congress in facilitating smooth transfers of power and how COVID-19 will affect the 2020 transition.  

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Read the highlights:

John Podesta described weighing long-term policy goals against the country’s immediate needs during the 2008 Obama transition.

“Clearly, President-elect Obama had a lot on his plate. He had made some big promises to the American people [when running for office]. The first thing we ended up doing was trying to make a down payment on those promises through the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009]. …But you also have to simultaneously be thinking about the big promises of the campaign. Number one was the commitment to try to create healthcare for all. …You have to decide what your priorities are.”  

Stephen Hadley recalled helping the incoming Obama administration respond to a national security threat just before the 2008 inauguration. 

“Right before inauguration … we had gotten intelligence that there was a potential threat to the inauguration itself. So that Saturday morning, we had the FBI director come in and brief both the existing and incoming national security teams…, what we knew about it, what we were doing about it, and then had kind of a roundtable discussion. …That’s the kind of thing you can try to do in a transition to put the new team in a position to … handle the responsibilities [of office].”  

Lisa Monaco discussed how new administrations receive intelligence during presidential transitions. 

“Before the election, the notion of sharing information [and] sharing intelligence [is] entirely a product of convention. There’s no dictate. …After Election Day, there is a provision in a law that was passed after 9/11, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, that requires the president-elect … to get some form of the president’s daily brief. [This enables a president-elect to understand] what the threats are [and] what the state of big strategic issues are so there can be that smooth handoff.”  

Monaco and  Hadley discussed how Congress can help facilitate peaceful transfers of power.  

Monaco: “I think another thing that the legislature can do is … memorialize and instantiate in statute best practices. We have the transition act that was passed … to instantiate some of the best practices that the Bush administration [employed during the 2008 transition]. …Building on lessons learned and memorializing them … can be a very, very helpful role for the legislature for future transitions.” 

Hadley: “The most important thing that Congress—particularly the Senate—can do is speed through the confirmations of Cabinet officials for the new president. Get the president’s team in place so the president can start [his or her] administration.” 

Barbara Perry discussed how bipartisanship can help new administrations address national security threats.  

“Russell Riley [co-chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program] and I [did an interview] for [a] Bush 43 project with Dick Gephardt, who was the House minority leader [from 1995 to 2003]. After 9/11, he’s speaking to … the president and he says, ‘Mr. President, the most important thing now is that we all trust one another. This is about life and death. Our first responsibility is to keep the people safe. …We cannot play politics with this.’ …Obviously it was related to terrorism, but I certainly think now in this matter of life and death with COVID, we have to keep our eye on that.” 

 Podesta described how COVID-19 will impact this year’s post-election transition for a second-term Trump or first-term Biden administration.

“You’re not doing classified briefings on Zoom. …[But] the biggest issue … is building the teamwork that’s necessary to … create a culture that’s going to work together effectively right from the get-go. …If there’s a new incoming team, creating that culture inside the White House and within an administration is just going to be more challenging.”  

The panelists described how transition teams and new administrations can develop innovative solutions for the public good.  

Monaco: “People in government should never forget that they are not the sole source of wisdom on a set of issues. Having a productive way of collaborating and getting information from the private sector to draw upon innovative ideas outside of government … is absolutely invaluable.” 

Hadley: “I think innovation is great, but there are a lot of ideas out there. The trick is figuring out, politically, what are the ideas whose time has come and are salable. So part of it is new ideas and innovations, but part of it is having a political strategy.”  

Podesta: “I think presidents usually don’t think about performance nearly enough. And the public, quite frankly, is skeptical about whether government can actually deliver. So I would advise that the administration—and whoever’s leading it—to pay more attention to that. …At the end of the day, it really [is about] implementation. That has to be number one.”