Yamiche Alcindor and David Marchick on a Transition Like No Other


January 27, 2021

On the final episode of Transition Lab, David Marchick is joined by guest host Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. As one of America’s leading journalists, Alcindor covered a transition like no other, one marked by a global pandemic and an economic recession, a racial reckoning, a president’s attempts to overturn a fair election, and an attack on the Capitol.

In this episode, Alcindor interviews Transition Lab’s regular host, David Marchick, about this historic period. Marchick, director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, describes how the Trump and Biden teams approached this transition cycle, how the delay in ascertainment and Capitol insurrection impacted the transition, and how this transition stacks up against previous ones.

Coming soon! Season two of the Partnership for Public Service podcast. This is the last episode on the 2020 transition, but the podcast will return later in the year with a new focus. Stay tuned.

Read the highlights:

Marchick discussed how the Biden team prepared for an uncertain transition cycle.  

Marchick: “[The Biden team] anticipated almost everything. …It anticipated a delay in the outcome of the election because so many people would vote remotely or by mail; it anticipated a decent likelihood of a delayed ascertainment; it anticipated the impact of an uncooperative president and parts of the administration; and it anticipated a lack of cooperation from certain agencies. …For each of these risks or potential challenges, [the team] built a mitigation strategy.”

Marchick assessed whether agencies cooperated with the Biden team.

Marchick: “Most agencies kicked into high gear once ascertainment was made. They wanted to work with the Biden team, do what was right for the country and implement the law. …Certain agencies—the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget—simply just didn’t want to help. …With those agencies, there was real damage done. That damage was ameliorated by the fact that President-elect Biden had so much experience and his team had so much experience. …But it’s still really unfortunate that there was a delay and I think it hurt the country.”

Marchick described how the Capitol insurrection impacted the transition.

Marchick: “There’s only 78 days [between Election Day and Inauguration Day]. Because of the delayed ascertainment, the Biden team only had 57 days. And because of the entire episode on the Capitol—not just on Jan. 6, but in the days leading up to it—[the team] lost another week or 10 days. So that brings the transition down [about] 45 days, which is about the same as George W. Bush had because of the delayed Florida outcome. …[The delay] further slowed the Senate process, which was already slow because of the Georgia [Senate] elections, and it impeded the Biden team’s ability to get people confirmed. …[The riot] shocked the nation, and I think we’re seeing the impact of that today.”

Marchick talked about the pace of Biden appointments thus far.

Marchick: “[The team] built a machine, a personnel machine. …Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, [has] appointed more than twice as many officials to the White House staff than any other previous president at this time. …President-elect Biden [has] nominated 52 [Senate-confirmed officials]. The previous record was 42 by President Obama. …[The team also] had 1,100 [non-confirmed officials] sworn in by Inauguration Day. That is more than Obama and Trump had combined on Day 100. The personnel team has been fantastic and highly productive.”

Marchick compared this transition to previous ones.

Marchick: “You can’t say this is worse than 1860 when states seceded and [we approached] the Civil War. …In 1932, [there was] the Great Depression. We had bank runs in 25 states, Hitler came to power and Hoover did nothing. Both Roosevelt and Marriner Eccles, who was the head of the Federal Reserve, begged Hoover to call a bank holiday—to stop the banks from running and to stop people from losing their homes and their savings—and Hoover refused. That was a pretty bad transition. But as Ken Burns said [in an earlier podcast], no shots had been fired, nobody had been killed, no arms had been raised in any previous transition. So I would say that this one has to be somewhere between 1860 and 1932, ameliorated by the fact that the Biden team was so experienced and so buttoned up. It was a bad transition this year.”

Marchick outlined several reforms that would strengthen future transitions.

Marchick: “I think there are a few things the Congress should look at. For ascertainment, there has to be a lower standard for starting the process. We could have close elections again (actually this was not really a close election) and we could have contested elections again, but the president-elect and the challenger need access to the services and support from the GSA and the government earlier. I think that the challenger should get more money for staffing and everything should be moved up earlier. …78 days is really not enough to get started on Jan. 20. I’m confident that Congress will look at that and … improve the laws.”