The Basics: Frequently Asked Questions about Presidential Transitions


Q. What is a “presidential transition?”

A. A presidential transition is the process of planning for a new presidential term. That can include a new president entering office or a president starting their second term.

While campaigning to win an election, presidential contenders and a president seeking re-election should be laying the groundwork for the next four years. Presidential candidates must prepare for the responsibilities of taking office and create a transition team responsible for setting up infrastructure to turn campaign promises to policy and to plan a management agenda. Incumbents seeking reelection should view the pre-election and post-election periods as a transition, and use this time as an opportunity to plan for changes in the Cabinet and other leadership positions, and to craft second term policy and management agendas.


Q. Why are presidential transitions important?

A. Presidents must be ready to govern on Inauguration Day. With only about 75 days between Election Day and the inauguration, a transition team must create a plan for governing should their candidate win.

An incoming president is responsible for making more than 4,000 political appointments, overseeing a budget of nearly $4 trillion, and managing a huge organization that employs more than 2 million federal employees and more than 2 million military and reserve forces. An incumbent president is likely to face turnover in key politically appointed positions along with a wide range of domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Preparation is always crucial, but even more so as the country faces the devastating coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. Whoever takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021, must be ready to respond to concerns born from the pandemic, and other potential crises that could occur such as natural disasters and a host of foreign policy and national security issues.


Q. Are transitions only important when there is a change in presidents?

 A. No, presidents running for reelection also should prepare for a transition to a second term.

Veterans of both Democratic and Republican White Houses recommend administrations think of the beginning of a second term as a transition from the first rather than a continuation of the status quo. By re-evaluating policy priorities and anticipating personnel changes, a transition enables presidents to be better prepared for success early in their second term.


Q. When should presidential campaigns begin transition planning?

A. Candidates should begin planning in the spring of an election year.

The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transitions® offers a detailed guide to help candidates and their campaigns through the process.


Q. Is it presumptuous for a candidate to start transition planning so early? Won’t it look like they are “measuring the drapes?”

A. Not at all.

Presidents must be ready to govern on day one. They have an obligation to fully plan the start of their administration. Many important tasks–such as getting security clearances for top national security staff–take too long to wait until an election victory to start.

Recent changes to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 require federal agencies to plan for a transition, so current government leaders also have legal obligations to plan early.


Q. What do transition teams do?

A. The scope, structure and goals of transition teams will differ depending on the priorities of each candidate. However, all presidential transition teams are responsible for at least three primary tasks.

  • Develop a clear policy agenda. The transition team must determine a set of legislative, executive and agency proposals based on the campaign platform.
  • Evaluate how federal agencies can contribute to the president’s management and policy agenda. Transition teams must understand of the structure and goals of more than 100 federal agencies, and then develop a plan for how each agency can help enact the president’s goals.
  • Prepare to select more than 4,000 presidential appointees, including more than 1,200 that require Senate confirmation. A transition team for a new president must identify, recruit and guide enough candidates through the hiring process to ensure an administration is prepared on Inauguration Day. Many potential staff members need to go through a stringent security clearance and ethics review, and the transition team also needs to prepare nominees for that process.

Q. Who is involved in a presidential transition?

A. In addition to the candidate transition teams, there are three other groups that play an essential role in transition planning.

  • The sitting presidential administration: According to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, sitting administrations must prepare for a transition even if the current president is running for reelection. The White House is responsible for establishing a council of leaders in the federal government to prepare for transition.
  • Federal departments and agencies: Senior agency officials responsible for transition activities begin preparing at least six months before the election. Across all federal departments and agencies, these officials build internal teams to provide timely and relevant information to incoming senior leaders about policies, operations, budgets and personnel. If there is a new president, these transition teams will prepare the new administration’s team regarding on agency policies and programs, as well as budgets and other issues. The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transitions® offers a detailed guide to assist senior career leaders through the process.
  • The General Services Administration (GSA): GSA provides funding, office space and administrative support to the major candidates in the months preceding the election, beginning immediately following the major political conventions. GSA also serves as a liaison between transitions teams and federal agencies.

Q. Which campaigns receive public funds and assistance?

A. GSA gives to “eligible” campaigns, defined as “a candidate of a major party [as defined in 26 U.S.C. §9002(6)] for President or Vice-President of the United States; and … any other candidate who has been determined by the Administrator to be among the principal contenders for the general election to such offices.”

To receive public support, presidential campaigns must establish a separate transition organization, disclose financial supporters, and release and enforce ethics plans for transition team members.


Q. Who pays for transition planning?

A. Presidential transition teams are nonprofit entities, separate from the campaigns, and require their own space, people and money.

Since 1963, transitions have been paid for by a combination of private and public funds. In 2010, Congress increased the amount of assistance available to transition teams.

For the 2020 election, Congress appropriated $9.62 million for transition activities to each eligible campaign. If candidates plan to accept government support, they must disclose privately raised funds to the public, which are subject to a $5,000 per person limit.


Q. How much does a presidential transition cost?

A. Most recent presidential transitions have each cost more than $10 million.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s transition cost roughly $9.3 million, with about $4 million raised from private donors.

In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s transition team was the first to take advantage of the newly amended pre-election funding provisions approved by Congress in 2010. The Romney team received $8.9 million in government funds. The team spent an additional $1.4 million in privately raised funds, much of which was returned to donors after Romney’s 2012 defeat.

In 2016, Donald Trump’s transition effort was allocated $9.5 million in government funding, and raised more than $6.5 million from private donors.


Q. What happens if a president is re-elected?

A. In the event that the president-elect is the incumbent, federal transition funds for post-election transition activities are returned to the Treasury. The law does allow for GSA to use funds for training of new political appointees throughout a president’s term.


Q. What happens if the result of the election is unclear?

A. The law allows all major candidates to continue using the facilities and services provided by the government until the GSA administrator is able to determine the apparent successful candidates for the office of president and vice president.