August 24, 2020

Key transition lessons from two former White House chiefs of staff

Josh Bolten and Denis McDonough are well-versed in presidential transitions. As former White House chiefs of staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively, they helped usher new administrations into office and prepare presidents for their second terms. In this Transition Lab episode, host David Marchick spoke with Bolten and McDonough about how they helped orchestrate successful transfers of power, fostered bipartisanship during those difficult times and helped set the standard for successful transitions today.

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough to identify a key aspect of a successful  presidential transition.

Bolten: “[Having] somebody who’s been deeply involved in personnel is an important element of transition…It was good to have someone [Clay Johnson, a long time Bush friend and former aide to Bush when he was governor of Texas] identified and in that role long in advance of the election and to have somebody who was really spending their time not focused on trying to win the election, which is what everybody else is focused on, but on what do you do after you win?”

McDonough: “You want somebody who’s close to the candidate, who has the trust of a candidate and can be discreet…and trust that…somebody is not going to try to be gaming the process…The idea of getting a good head start on [the transition] makes sense.”

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough how the first-term transitions for former Presidents Bush and Obama differed.

Bolten: “We [had] that truncated transition [due to the delayed results of the 2000 election]…Imagine having just run the marathon and as soon as you hit the tape, somebody says, ‘Oh yeah, and there’s 10 more miles.’ So it was a pretty tired team that walked into the White House on January 20, 2001. [Also], I think in part because of the contested election, some of the young folks on the [Bill] Clinton team were bitter…There were really minor things…the W’s were missing from a bunch of the keyboards…I got to my desk in my office and nobody could reach me because my phone had been forwarded to a different number. We’re laughing now. We actually kind of laughed at them at the time.”

McDonough: “Josh really set the tone. The [2008-2009] transition was happening in a state of war and it was important to make sure that there was no slip from cup to lips in the context of the transition…I had…a sense of comradery, recognizing that [the Bush people were] handing off to a new team, but given the stakes of the affair, wanted to see [President Obama] be in a position to succeed.”

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough how the Bush and Obama teams set aside their partisan differences during the transition.

Bolten: “[In 2008], Obama and [Republican presidential nominee John] McCain were fashioning their campaigns as ‘not Bush,’ and George W. Bush understood that and did not take it personally…It was kind of a political necessity for even the Republican candidate to be repudiating some of the Bush positions…We weren’t actually indifferent; we were rooting for McCain. But we stayed out [of political debates] on the president’s direction. He said, ‘Prepare a really good professional, smooth transition because this is the first transition in modern history when the United States itself is under threat and we have a national security responsibility here, and do the best possible job you can regardless of who wins this election.’”

McDonough: “President Obama felt that commitment from President Bush. As the president, you’re taking over this thing and there [are] very few people…who have been through it. And add to that…the age of Al Qaeda and the global terrorist threat that had struck us right here at home. So the fact that [President Bush] has kind of teed up a process by which to make [the transition] smoother is a very personal thing.”

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough about how Bush transition team related to the incoming Obama team.

Bolten: “We went out of our way to demonstrate to the Obama team that we were playing it straight.”

McDonough: “Totally playing that straight. And there’s a kind of philosophical question and then there’s a structural question. Philosophically and temperamentally [the question is]: Is there a reason for us to trust these guys? Then there’s a structural question, which is are the agencies set up? Josh [addressed both questions]. He communicated his interest in an effective transition, but he also built a structure that ends up being the basis now for the statute that now requires a…civil servant, [a] non-political person in each agency who’s going to stay.”

Marchick asked Bolten and McDonough about the ongoing challenges of transition work and how the 2008 transition helped lay the groundwork for more success in the future.

McDonough: “I think this whole question of workspaces and computer infrastructure in this day and age is an important thing. Making sure that people are practicing good cyber hygiene…because we know that other countries are going to try to hack into the transition teams with 100% certainty.”

Bolten: “[The Obama team was] much better organized in 2016 than we were [in 2008] because we were still kind of fumbling with the playbook. Thanks to a lot of good work done by folks on the outside, including the Partnership for Public Service, by [2016], there are now statutory obligations and kind of a playbook. So as much as I appreciate the kudos being given to the Bush administration on the way out, I think what was done in the Obama administration [in 2016-2017] – and I hope what will be done at the appropriate time in the Trump administration – was much more organized and professional than [what] we were able to accomplish in 2008.”