Outgoing Administration

December 18, 2018 | Updated on March 28, 2019


A successful presidential transition requires planning and preparation not only on the part of the incoming transition team, but also on the part of the outgoing president and administration. The 2008 Bush to Obama transition was widely regarded as one of the smoothest in recent history. Bush made the transition a top priority during his final months in office, and communicated that priority to the rest of his Cabinet and administration.

The incumbent has a responsibility not only to establish a tone of cooperation and transparency, but also to share information and knowledge about national security issues, develop an infrastructure for coordinating the transition within the White House and between the White House and agencies, provide assistance on presidential personnel issues, and plan and conduct training on emergency response with members of the incoming Cabinet.

A smooth transfer of power depends heavily on the attitudes and actions of the outgoing administration and that starts with the president. The relationship between the two sides should be professional and one of mutual respect. The president can play an important role in building this relationship, as President George W. Bush did at the end of his term of office. Just as it is important for the incoming administration to treat career and non-career agency staff with respect, it is important for outgoing officials to make the same commitment, and to prepare for a seamless transition regardless of whether the next president will be of the same political party or ideology.

Building relationships can start with outgoing administration officials sitting down with their incoming counterparts as soon as they have been announced. This will allow for valuable knowledge transfer and create relationships that may be useful later on.

In addition to setting the tone, there are several formal tools the outgoing president can use to support a smooth transition. The first are presidential memoranda and executive orders. These should make it clear to the administration as a whole that supporting a smooth transition of power is a top priority, and should establish general guidelines on how and what types of information to provide to incoming transition teams. This should occur well before the election has taken place, sending out a message to agencies and the Cabinet to cooperate fully with the transition and to provide the new president’s team with whatever information it needs. In addition, the White House should negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the president-elect’s transition team soon after Election Day to govern the incoming team’s access to federal agencies.

President Bush used executive orders and presidential memoranda to help develop an infrastructure that could support the formal handover of power. For example, Bush’s Executive Order 13476, Facilitation of a Presidential Transition, established a Presidential Transition Coordinating Council and took other steps, including requiring the General Services Administration to develop a transition directory and briefing materials for incoming appointees. It also directed agencies to enter into transition agreements with the major-party transition teams regarding “transition procedures and identification of transition contacts.”

Bush also established an agency transition council, bringing together career agency transition coordinators prior to the 2008 election under the auspices of the General Services Administration to discuss common issues they would confront during the post-election period. The Edward “Ted” Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 would enshrine these provisions in law.

Ensuring complete knowledge transfer of national security and intelligence matters is one of the top priorities in any transition, particularly during times of war. The White House must implement the processes put into place by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which allow for expedited security clearances for key advisors and top transition aides of both campaigns in the run up to the election.

The White House also should facilitate orientation briefings for both presidential candidates. Immediately after the party nominating conventions, the White House should direct the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to provide regular briefings to each presidential candidate and their staff on important issues of national security.

Besides the orientation briefings, the outgoing administration should host a tabletop “black swan” exercise after the election for the president-elect’s national security team. This session should provide the incoming administration with a sense of what it is like to manage a major crisis in real time, and to equip the incoming team with critical information on emergency procedures, planning and response both within the White House and across government.

Finally, the outgoing administration must make preparations to move out of the White House. This requires working closely with the National Archives and Records Administration to identify and move the huge volume of records accumulated over the course of the administration in time for the new president to take office. In addition, the president may choose to take advantage of office space and equipment GSA is authorized to provide for the outgoing president and staff for approximately six months following the end of his or her term.