The Biden Transition to Power

December 18, 2020

Ted Kaufman and President-elect Joe Biden go way back. Kaufman helped organize Biden’s first Senate office in 1972 and served as his chief of staff for nearly two decades. Kaufman left the Senate in 1994, but later returned to fill his old boss’s seat after Biden became Barack Obama’s vice president in 2009. More recently, Kaufman helped pass two laws, one in 2010 and another in 2015, that improved the presidential transition process. He currently co-chairs the Biden-Harris transition team.

In this episode of Transition Lab—the first to focus on the Biden transition to power—host David Marchick asks Kaufman to discuss Biden’s transition planning process. Marchick also discusses with Kaufman how he became a leading transition expert, why the Biden-Harris transition will serve as a model for future transition teams and how he has approached the unique challenges of the 2020 transition cycle.

Read the highlights:

Kaufman recalled Joe Biden asking him to run the transition:

Kaufman: “It was in the spring. We had been talking … about the campaign. I think maybe I mentioned the transition in passing, but [did not say] anything about if we ought to start or whatnot. I don’t think there’s ever been a transition that started in the early spring. And then he called me, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this transition and I think we ought to get started right now.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what … if you go to one of these Partnership for Public Services get-togethers, you learn one thing: You can’t start too early.’ And so, I said to him that I would start it. …It was really one of the smartest things we [did].”

Kaufman described the relationship between the campaign and transition teams.

Kaufman: “Until Election Day, the campaign [was] by far the most important part of the Biden effort. We talked with campaign [staff] and cleared everything we did all the time. …The transition is not about making policy. It’s about getting to the bottom of what a President Biden would want to do when he became president. …We got from the campaign all of the policy statements he made, and we collected them into what we called a campaign promises book. Then, the transition took the book and sliced it and diced so that people [responsible for] each agency knew what the Biden policies were for that specific agency.”

Kaufman explained why the transition team embraced the motto, “Whatever happens in the transition, stays in the transition.”

Kaufman: “We knew that there would be incredible interest in what was happening in all parts of the transition, especially who was going to get positions in the administration. It’s like the greatest parlor game or rabbit hunt in Washington during the period that the transition is ongoing. Who’s going to get a job? When are they going to get them? Who’s going to get what? Who’s going to be in line? Those types of things. Everyone took [the transition team’s] responsibility seriously. [As a result], there were very few accurate reports of what was happening during the transition.”

Kaufman described building a diverse transition team.

Kaufman: “President-elect Biden’s most important commitment was having an administration that reflected America. And I must tell you, because of the incredible number of highly qualified people interested in serving the transition, this was no problem. And we turned out to have a transition that genuinely mirrored America in just about every way”

Kaufman reflected on planning a virtual transition.

Kaufman: “When we started [the transition], we were just about a month into the period when businesses [and] schools had been shut down, and we had no idea how long that would last. We also were just learning to be efficient on Zoom and other platforms. We realized we needed to plan for a virtual transition, and we did. It increased the degree of difficulty considerably. But thanks to good planning, coordination, and communication, [the transition] has been seamless.”

Kaufman discussed the impact of his transition legislation:

Kaufman: “In 2010 … the Senate passed my bill, Senate bill 3196. It moved up the date that the transition teams get access to office space, computers, phones and funding from the government. Prior to the legislation, support from the General Services Administration only kicked in after the election. …I said before about how difficult it is to have a transition in the most complex organization in the history of the world. You’re supposed to basically do it in 70 days. What my bill did was increase it from 70 to more like 140 days. Instead of getting the financing help after the election, you got the financing help after the convention.”

Kaufman reflected on Biden’s Cabinet nominees:

Kaufman: “I think these nominees [are] highly qualified. They’re experienced. And they’re breaking barriers. …The first person of color to run the Defense Department, the first female to be the Director of National Intelligence, the first gay Cabinet secretary. It’s about a half a dozen different [minority groups] that were not represented [before].”

Kaufman compared the challenges of the 2020 transition with those of 2008:

Kaufman: “I thought we [saw] the most difficult transition because of the Great Recession, but it’s nothing like this. I mean, no other transition has ever taken place with these set of challenges: a pandemic, a recession, a racial justice crisis, an unpredictable president and political polarization. I realized that we had to build off the best of what previous transitions had done—and do much more—to ensure that Vice President Biden would be ready to govern on Inauguration Day.”