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. 

Nearly half of political agency leaders leave within the first six months of a second term

While planning for presidential transitions is most often associated with candidates running to be a first-time president, incumbents seeking re-election must also engage in transition planning for a second term. 

Recent administrations have tended to view a second term as a continuation of the first as opposed to an opportunity to transition to a new administration with refreshed goals, improved processes and new leadership. As Josh Bolten, President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, said, “Every two-term presidency has had the same problem, which is the president doesn’t think of it as a transition.” 

A major reason to plan ahead is that incumbent presidents should expect high levels of turnover among  top political appointees. In fact, for recent two-term administrations, almost half of top agency leaders leave soon after a re-election victory. Presidents running for a second term should seek to retain top talent whenever possible and identify replacements prepared for the arduous Senate confirmation process.

Data compiled by the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition shows that for the last three two-term presidents, an average of 46% of their top Senate-confirmed officials serving on Election Day left their jobs within the first six months of the second terms. These include Cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries. On average, 11% of those serving on Election Day resigned their positions even before the re-elected president’s second inauguration, while 31% were no longer serving within three months into the second term.  

Turnover is generally high at the Cabinet level. During the period between the election and the early months of the second term, five Cabinet secretaries left the Clinton administration, nine departed the Bush administration and seven left the Obama administration.

The need to plan for a transition to a potential second term 

Agency leaders leave for a variety of reasons, whether to accept new opportunities or because the president wanted a change in leadership. However, high turnover among top officials decreases institutional knowledge and has the potential to make long-term, transformational changes more challenging for an agency or administration. 

While many presidents have accomplished signature priorities in the first year, in part because of effective transition planning, fifth years have not been nearly as productive. Previous second-term presidents have missed opportunities for early victories because most have minimized the need for advanced planning. 

Effective second term transition planning can change turnover challenges into opportunities. Four additional years in the White House offer a chance for a recalibration led by individuals with renewed energy and original ideas. “Newness is a good thing” and an opportunity to look for a “fresh perspective” according to Denis McDonough, who served in both terms of President Barack Obama’s administration. 

As Bolten and the Center’s advisory board summarized in 2020, “Every second term administration benefits from fresh eyes and fresh legs. Every second term president experiences significant turnover and an important policy window after the election. Therefore, effective planning is essential given the inevitable turnover, a Senate confirmation process which unfortunately is taking longer, and the fact that the fifth year of a president’s tenure typically provides a window for bipartisan policy development.” 

A second term offers a chance for a recalibration and a new start that requires serious preparation long before Inauguration Day. Even though it comes with great challenges, a second term provides the opportunity for a president to retain experienced leaders and bring in individuals with fresh ideas and new energy—should they plan accordingly. 

By Alex Tippett and Paul Hitlin

After winning reelection, fifth-year presidents should be well positioned to pursue their policy agenda. Modern two-term presidents, however, have tended to struggle in their fifth year. This is largely because recent administrations viewed the transition from a first to a second term as a continuation rather than a time of change and renewal.

A recent report produced by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, with assistance from the Center for Presidential Transition, examines this phenomenon in detail. By examining the personnel, policy priorities and processes of past administrations, the article offers a roadmap for effective presidential fifth years. Presidents winning reelection have the opportunity to avoid pitfalls that have hurt previous administrations and begin their second terms in a stronger position.

Professor Michael Nelson, an expert on the American presidency, joins Transition Lab to discuss the political dynamics that define a president’s first and second term. Nelson explains how new presidents can maximize their impact during their first year in office and outlines the challenges two-term presidents face during their fifth year. 

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In reflecting on the Clinton Administration and insights from his book, “Clinton’s Elections: 1992, 1996, and the Birth of a New Era of Governance,” Nelson noted: 

“[Clinton] was often stumbling through much of that first year. Clinton is somebody who has a vast capacity to learn from experience, and in particular, learn from his mistakes. In some ways, that’s the best quality a first-year president can have, because you have never done this job or a job quite like it.” 

Dave: Looking back on modern presidential history, what, which president would you say had the most significant or consequential first year? And why?” 

Michael: “That’s a great question, and I’ll answer it in two ways. If you look at which recent president had the most consequential first year in terms of accomplishing what he said during the campaign, that would be Ronald Reagan who managed to get through a democratic Congress. [He passed] a massive tax cut, reductions in domestic spending, a massive increase in defense spending, which were exactly the things they had talked about during the campaign. His first year worked out in a way that fulfilled the expectations that he brought to the office.  

“No president was caught more off guard by virtue of preparation than George W. Bush with 9/11. He had run for office on domestic issues. He had spent the first seven or eight months of his presidency focusing on domestic issues: tax cuts, education and so on. And then boom, two planes crashed into the world trade center in New York. Another point crashes into the Pentagon. And as he realized almost instantaneously, I’m a wartime president and this is what my presidency is going to be about.” 

Nelson explained his interest in second terms, noting that, 

Michael: “It’s really hard to think of any, perhaps not any, presidents who have served two terms and whose second terms have been as successful as their first. And that’s not to say no president has had a successful second term. But in almost every case, maybe in every case, there’s been a falloff in performance. So why is that? Especially given that the president has now had four years of experience in the office, what is it about second terms that usually leads to a falling off and performance? 

Dave: Why is that? What is unique about the challenges that a second term president faces? 

Michael: “I think in some ways, the seeds of second term disappointment are sowed in the campaign for reelection. So, if you’re a president running for a second term, basically you have two plays in the playbook. One is to turn it into a referendumif you liked my first term, a vote for me again. The other is to turn it into a choice, meaning if you haven’t particularly liked my first term, the guy who’s running against me would be even worse. Those are the two plays in the playbook. Neither one of them is really laying the foundation for a second term agenda. 

Director of the White House Transition Project, Martha Kumar discusses the history of presidential transitions. Kumar outlines how the Presidential Transition Act changed transition planning, the importance of White House design for a successful first year in office and talks about the best—and worst—presidential transitions. 

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Dave: What advice do you have for secondterm planning? 

Martha: It’s important to think through what you want in the second term, because second terms have not been historically successful. Think about how it gives you an opportunity for a new start and what kinds of items you can actually get passed.” 

“The second term is very different than the first because in the first term you have a new agenda lined up as you come in. In a second term, you’re basically left with leftovers from the first administration of things you couldn’t get through.”

Dave: The transition used to be much longer. The election was held in November, and presidents used to be inaugurated in March. But in 1933, that law changed, and Eisenhower was the first president who had a shortened transition [with his inauguration] in January. Now, it’s about 73, 74 days. Why was that transition period shortened?  

Martha: The transition period shortened, one, because travel and information are moving much faster now. With the kind of vulnerabilities that you have in the period of changing presidents, it’s important that it‘s long enough to get policy and personnel in order, but not too long. In fact, if you look at President George W. Bush, his transition was only 37 days, but they had done so much work beforehand preparing for it that they were able to come in and have a very smooth beginning. 

Andrew Card, chief of staff to President George W. Bush and deputy chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, shares his perspective on the surprisingly challenging “friendly” transition from President Reagan to President George H. W. Bush. Card shares insights from his distinguished career in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush Administrations.

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Dave: One of the challenges of the Reagan to H.W. Bush transition was how Bush put his own stamp on the presidency. Reagan was an incredibly popular president, a strong president. He revolutionized the Republican party, but Bush had to show that he was different. How did you do that? And what are the key things that President Bush did early on to say this will be a different tone, a different presidency, a different approach?

Andrew: “It started with George H.W. Bush, who recognized that he didn’t have the same personality as Ronald Reagan. He wasn’t the same kind of communicator as Ronald Reagan. And the world was also different. George H.W. Bush has got the greatest resume of anyone who’s ever been president, but it’s a resume grounded in relationships and relationships developed through his years at the UN, or as Envoy to China, or CIA director, or Chairman of the Republican Party or Vice President. Whereas Ronald Reagan’s was kind of built by a celebrity status and great communications, the ability to translate political jargon into common everyday language. I think George H.W. Bush recognized he wasn’t Ronald Reagan. He agreed with Ronald Reagan on most of the policy aspects, but he wasn’t Ronald Reagan. He was going to have a different style to his government.”

Dave: So, George H.W. Bush was vice president and he was a candidate for president. How much time did he actually spend on the transition and how often did the transition team brief him or meet with him?

Andrew: “Most of American history has had transitions centered around hostile takeovers: my candidate lost, your candidate won and it’s a different party. This was a friendly takeover, so we had the added burden of managing the expectations of people working for President Reagan who just assumed if George Bush got elected president that they would stay in their job… But candidly, the campaign was so focused on the campaign, they were not spending a lot of time thinking about the transition. It was kind of left [to] the day after the election.”

Contrasting “friendly” takeovers, where the outgoing and incoming presidents are of the same party, and “hostile” takeovers, where the two are of different parties, Card noted:

“The friendly takeover has the expectation from people who are working on ‘the same team’ that they’re going to continue to work on the same team. In a hostile takeover, everybody understands there’s a new sheriff in town. This creates expectations that things are going to change, including people… I ran the transition out when there was a hostile takeover when Bill Clinton came in and George H.W. Bush was leaving office… obviously the vast majority of people, according to the Clinton incoming team, would be to resign. It was surprising how many people, including cabinet members, said, ‘No, no, I’ll just wait until they remove me. I’m not planning to leave.’ And President Bush said, ‘No I promised I would clear the decks, we’ll clear the decks.’ It was much easier to do that in the context of a hostile takeover than a friendly one where the conversations were very different.”

Dave: There was a tough election [in 1992], the country wanted change. Since then, the country and history has shown a much more favorable light on George H.W. Bush. What do you think his biggest legacy will be?

Andrew: “His biggest legacy I think is that he was a decent man and truly respected by people who didn’t agree with him. He worked very very hard at not practicing braggadocio. It was never about him. He was a very, very humble leader. He had remarkable relationships on Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle. He had the ability to forget who his enemies were, and he would see them as friends.”

Dave: What would you advise the Trump people to be doing now to think about a potential second term?

Andrew: “Well, I think it’s very important that you not [wait to] start your planning for a second term until after you’ve won the right to have the second term. If you wait that long to start your planning, you’ll probably be about six months late before you can implement it.