How the COVID-19 Pandemic Will Impact the Presidential Transition

August 25, 2020

By Christina Condreay and Alex Tippett

The winner of this November’s presidential election will face daunting challenges—a devastating pandemic, a major economic crisis, civil unrest stemming from racial inequality and a long list of pressing domestic and national security issues. These are momentous times that accentuate the need for presidential transition planning, whether it’s a first term for Democratic candidate Joseph Biden or a second term for President Donald Trump.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout will impact presidential transition planning in four key areas:

  • Planning a budget and policy agenda.
  • Making priority appointments to top federal jobs.
  • Developing executive actions.
  • Creating the White House organizational structure.

Additionally, a first-term Biden administration will have to consider a fifth area–the preparation for “landing teams” that are deployed by incoming presidential administrations to review agencies operations and policies.

The president’s budget must balance the immediate needs stemming from the pandemic and the economic crisis along with the long-term policy agenda

The president’s budget is an important opportunity to signal the priorities of an administration, shape the congressional debate and shore up alliances.

In 2021, the president’s budget will come on the heels of congressional approval of several trillion dollars in stimulus spending in 2020 and will involve weighing trade-offs between the administration’s long-term policy agenda and the requirements dictated by the current crises. This will necessitate a high-stakes appraisal—the funding choices in this budget could shape the economic and political landscape for the next four years. Due to these challenges, work on the budget should begin early and be given greater attention and resources than in previous election cycles. 

Chris Lu, the executive director of the President Barack Obama’s 2008-2009 transition, said the severe financial crisis occurring when Obama took office pushed many policy concerns “to the backburner.” Transition planners should develop the budget to highlight major policy goals for the year ahead even if the immediate crisis remains the top priority.

Staffing the government during a crisis requires focusing on both immediate needs and second-order issues

Presidents are responsible for appointing about 4,000 officials throughout the federal government. A new president must fill these positions from scratch while second-term presidents often face significant staff turnover. According to previous research by the Partnership for Public Service, the first year of a second term coincides with an average turnover rate of more than 40% for senior leadership positions. Both before and after the Nov. 3 election, it is critical for transition planners to focus on public health and economic policy appointees who will be responsible for overseeing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the sagging economy.

The specific priority positions will depend on how a new administration structures its response, while a second-term administration may take the opportunity to reshape its efforts. A Cabinet-led response will require the administration to prioritize agency leadership positions while a response driven by the White House will call for a different staffing structure. Transition planners should develop a clear picture of what the post-election COVID-19 response will look like and identify key personnel for this effort.

The pandemic also has created several second-order threats such as increased cybersecurity risks with a remote workforce as well as greater global instability. The next administration should recognize that successfully navigating the current crises will require filling positions without traditional “pandemic-response” roles in agencies throughout the government.

The pandemic also will create operational challenges for presidential appointees. Procedures will have to be developed for previously routine issues, ranging from how to conduct safe and secure briefings with new appointees to the best way to work with a potentially remote Senate. The challenger’s transition team will need to closely coordinate with the General Service Administration (GSA), which provides the transition with office space, IT equipment and other support.

According to Mary Gibert, the federal transition coordinator at GSA, the groundwork for a virtual transition, however, has already been laid. In the last transition, much of the work was already conducted virtually, with many of personnel choosing to work on GSA-provided devices rather than come into the office. “COVID has not impacted our transition planning,” Gibert says. “We haven’t missed a beat. We’ve kept up with all our statutory requirements.”

Those involved in overseeing a second Trump term will have to ensure the Office of Presidential Personnel can ramp up its efforts to meet an expected turnover of political appointees on top of a high level of current vacancies, and determine where it can improve operations and procedures to better deal with the challenges resulting from the pandemic.

Prioritizing key executive actions will advance policy goals

Executive actions are one tool presidents can use to enact significant change–and do so quickly. Effectively using executive orders for achieving policy goals may be more challenging in 2021 because so much attention must be devoted to dealing with the immediate crises. Transition planners for both first- and fifth-year administrations should take time to develop executive orders and anticipate potential operational and legal challenges well before Jan. 20.

First-year administrations face a two-pronged challenge. They must advance the new president’s agenda while evaluating previous executive actions and rules they want to change. This can be a huge undertaking even under normal conditions. Resource constraints created by the pandemic will make it difficult for a new administration to accomplish all its goals. An incoming administration should concentrate on the most critical subset of issues. Doing so will prevent it from spreading itself too thin and increase its chances of success. Historically, there has been a decline in the number of executive orders issued by a president during the fifth year in office compared with the first term. In interviews with the Partnership for Public Service, former senior White House officials suggested the focus on re-election often limits formal planning for a president’s fifth year. If an administration is facing both a crisis and a re-election campaign, as is the case today, developing fifth-year executive orders may well fall to the bottom of the agenda. Investing time and resources in planning an executive agenda now, however, may allow the president to start the fifth year more effectively and set a productive tone for the rest of their presidency.

The White House structure must be equipped to respond to the current and future crises

All presidents seek a White House organizational structure that will lead to a smooth functioning operation and enable them to achieve their key policy priorities. New administrations must create this structure from scratch while a second-term administration has the opportunity to reexamine its White House design and improve areas of weakness. Any such redesign, however, will need to be attuned to the demands of the current crisis.

Different presidents have relied on a variety of organizational structures to address crises. During Harry Truman’s presidency, Congress created the National Security Council in 1947 to help the president coordinate national security policy. In 1993, President Bill Clinton created the National Economic Council by executive order to help coordinate the economic policy-making process and provide economic policy advice.

These entities centralized decision-making and the flow of information. Other presidents have relied on temporary arrangements such as President Obama’s appointment of an Ebola czar in 2014 to coordinate what was then the world’s biggest health threat. This type of temporary structure can be valuable but cannot provide the same institutional knowledge offered by a more permanent organization. Both first- and fifth-year administrations should use the transition period as an opportunity to evaluate the current pandemic response structure and determine if changes are needed. The next administration also should assess how to operate in a partial virtual work environment. A new administration should seek expert guidance and develop contingency plans while the current administration should identify problem areas that need to be resolved. Identifying and resolving these issues long before Inauguration Day will ensure a smooth start for a new administration or lead to improved conditions for a second term. Lessons could be learned from the agencies across government who are currently operating partially or totally virtually. Despite working virtually, agencies like the IRS and FEMA have managed to fulfill their normal mission requirements in addition to the new demands created by COVID-19. A new administration will have to demonstrate a similar level of agility.

A new administration must understand how agencies operate

A new administration must have a thorough understanding of every federal agency’s capabilities and responsibilities. To do this, presidential transition teams traditionally create landing teams that enter agencies following the election and gather relevant information. The roles of various agencies can change rapidly during a crisis. The transition landing teams must flag challenges related to the pandemic so that those issues can be evaluated and resolved.

Landing teams should also map the statutory landscape for each agency. Do agencies have emergency powers they are not taking advantage of? Are agencies exceeding the legal limits of their authority? An incoming administration must be aware of all these issues to mount an effective COVID-19 response. In addition, federal agencies must coordinate with one another, the private sector, state and municipal governments, and international partners during a crisis such as a pandemic. Landing teams should document these relationships so an incoming administration can take immediate control and identify potential pain points that need to be resolved.

Conclusion

Whether it’s a second Trump term or a first term for Biden, our government must be prepared to tackle the pandemic and the nation’s economic problems in addition to the challenges associated with any presidential transition. This will require thorough transition planning that accounts for the uniqueness of the current crises.