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.” 


Stephen Hadley held key national security positions in three Republican administrations before working on the George W. Bush transition in 2000-2001 and serving as Bush’s national security advisor. Kurt Campbell is an expert on East Asian affairs who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and co-authored, “Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power.” In this episode of Transition Lab, Hadley and Campbell join host David Marchick to discuss their experiences during presidential transitions and their concerns about the potential fallout from 2020 election. They also offer advice to Joe Biden’s transition team and those planning for a second term for President Trump.

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Hadley how national security transitions have changed since the 1970s.

Hadley: “There’s been enormous improvement. …I came into the office the day after the [1976] election and I went to my file cabinets where I had all these classified papers. …They were all empty because these [had] become presidential records and [were] taken off to the presidential library. [Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security advisor] showed up with no documents, no paper and no staff. …I think we’ve gotten a lot better at developing the art … of transitioning from one administration to the next.”

Marchick asked Campbell to describe his transition into the Department of State after the 2008 election.

Campbell: “The State Department has it down to a science. You’re assigned a young officer, you’re checked in, he or she brings you readings every day [and] you have careful meetings you go through. …You talk a little bit about what’s expected in terms of what your role and mission would be. …It had a quality that was a little bit like going through orientation, but I found it extraordinarily interesting.

Hadley explained how he worked closely with President Clinton’s national security team during the 2000-2001 transition to the Bush administration.

Hadley: “…We took [National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger’s terrorism group … and basically said, ‘Stay on, be part of the Bush administration, keep doing what you’re doing to defend the country. We’re going to probably relook strategy and take some different approaches, but in the interim, keep doing what you’re doing to keep the country safe.’ I think that is important so that you’re not standing down a capability in a transition, but you’re able to continue to do those operational things where the country might be vulnerable.”

Hadley described the relationship between political appointees and career employees in a new administration.

Hadley: “Political employees are supposed to intermediate between the political agenda that has come out of the election, and the expertise and judgment that is inherent based on the experience of the permanent government. …It’s not that the deep state is subverting the political appointees. They’re supposed to actually live in a certain amount of dynamic tension. That’s how our system has been designed. I think it’s served us well, but … is not understood well by a lot of Americans today.”

Hadley and Campbell discussed their concerns about the 2020 transition

Hadley: “I think … China [and] Russia don’t want to do anything that looks like they’re intervening in our election in a decisive way … I do worry about once the votes are in. …It looks [like] we’re going to be in a period of fairly extended uncertainty as to who has actually won this election with a lot of contested lawsuits and contested ballots being recounted. …I’m more worried about a country trying to take advantage of us during that kind of period.”

Campbell: “I tend to agree with Steve. …You don’t realize how much of our transition is built on a degree of goodwill. When [Jim Steinberg and I] wrote [our] book, the worst that we could imagine was something like the Iran hostage crisis, the Taiwan Strait issue. But I think the real issue this time is not the threat externally.”

Marchick asked Campbell and Hadley to offer advice to Democrat Joe Biden’s transition team and those planning for President Trump’s second term.

Campbell: “Simpler is better. The key [for Biden] is to… focus on the right people. Build your teams. Make sure you understand what you’re trying to achieve. Have a few general policy aspirations laid down, but understand that really detailed plans that stretch out beyond what the eye can see are unlikely to be valuable to the incoming team.”

Hadley: “If the president is re-elected, I would say, ‘Mr. President, you were elected to be a disruptor in chief. …Your second term is an opportunity to be a builder in chief. Don’t be afraid to change personnel, to bring in people who can help you build on the foundation of the first term.’ For the Biden team, I would say, ‘Don’t think that you’re coming in and writing on a blank sheet of paper. You’re going to have a lot of the same problems that your predecessors had. There are a lot of good things that your predecessors did [that would] be smart [to] build on and make … your own. Don’t be afraid to do that.”