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.

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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 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.”