Introducing a new podcast series from the Center for Presidential Transition®

Transition Lab

Transition Lab is a behind-the-scenes look at presidential transitions. Join David Marchick, director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition for candid discussions with former presidential chiefs of staff, transition team leads and other presidential transition experts. Transition Lab is a must-listen for anyone interested in developing a better understanding of what needs to happen before a president takes office or starts a second term.


2016: The Tale of Two Transitions

January 21, 2020

The Clinton and Trump transition leaders share what happened during the 2016 election. In this conversation, Rich Bagger (Trump) and Ed Meier (Clinton) discuss how they became involved with the transition, the challenges they faced and what happened after Election Day 2016.   

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Ed Meier and Rich Bagger say that having the two major-party transition teams working in the same building “wasn’t as weird as you might imagine.” Both attribute this to a recognition that ensuring a smooth transition is a critical task.   

Dave Marchick: “You were in the same room together after the conventions. You are in the same building together. Was that a little weird [having] your bosses—then candidate Trump and Secretary Clinton—building themselves up and tearing the other person down a [while] you all were working together, collaborating, talking in the same room?”  

Ed Meier: “It wasn’t as weird as you might imagine it could be… My colleague Ann O’Leary and I were the co-executive directors and we really emphasized with our team that this was a real responsibility, that we were preparing for governing. And in that sense, we weren’t sitting around trying to think of the next political hit to, to throw at candidate Trump. We were solely focused on how we were going to take the promises that Secretary Clinton was making on the campaign and implement those into the first 100 and 200 days of…[her] presidency. And in that sense, it felt more like governing than it did politicking—because that’s what it was. And so, in that sense, Rich was more of a colleague than a political competitor because we were learning about transition and really working on this great responsibility [together].” 

Rich Bagger: Well, we [were] definitely working in close quarters. And it was certainly interesting, but I agree completely with, with Ed’s comments. When we would meet together– we would meet together every month, you know, in the White House for the White House Transition Coordinating Council. We’d also meet periodically with the agency transition directors in the Executive Office Building. And I remember sitting in those meetings really being incredibly proud as an American that participating in a system where an outgoing administration is briefing representatives [and] planning transitions for the competitors for the presidency during a very contentious election—sitting down together [and talking] about the fundamentally important things for [the] continuity of government.” 

Ed Meier discusses how his transition team realized it had failed to prepare for the chance that Hillary Clinton would lose, as well as the emotional aftermath of the election. 

Dave Marchick: Donald Trump won, and most people didn’t expect him to win. What was that like and then what happened? 

Ed Meier: [Laughter] I’m glad the podcast listeners can’t see the tears streaming down my face right now. So, my family packed up, drove up to New York, and drop[ed] my kids off in New Jersey where my sister lives, and my wife and I went the Javits Center for what we thought was going to be the victory party in New York City. Actually, one of my dear friends recalls…[that] I turned to her and I said, “Our transition website was so beautiful.” She still reminds me of that moment.And, it just sort of encapsulates [it]—all this planning that goes into this this process and preparation and then for it to all [to] sort of not be as meaningful as you as you had hoped it would be…The next morning we had [all our] briefing materials with us and afterwards you realized we haven’t really planned sufficiently for this eventuality: Uh, what happens if we lose? And so as we were driving back down to Washington the next day, I sent [a] message to all of our transition team who had stayed…in Washington…and said “Don’t go into the office, come to our house. We’re going to have lunch. Bring your laptop computers, bring anything you have that you need to turn in.”  

And we took care of the beginning of all the logistics of winding down this organization we had spun up. And we also just had a moment for us; to just be there for each other emotionally. And there were definitely some tears shed. And, and you know, [on] one hand you’re having to take care of the logistical responsibilities of winding down an organization and [while also] taking care of a team—your colleagues who are and yourself—who are just emotionally exhausted and crushed. And it was definitely an extremely painful moment but also a moment where you realize you can’t just cry—even [if] you do cry a lot—but you also have to take care of winding down this organization. 

We knew Rich would have been very gracious, for sure. But we just didn’t want our team to need to go back into the building…There were a handful of us that then took all the laptops and took all the fobs and all that sort of thing and return[ed] them to the GSA in the building…For the most part, we just didn’t want our team to have to go through that emotionally.” 

Rich Bagger recounts how he left his role as transition director “two or three days after the election.”  

Rich Bagger: “Two or three days after the election, [it was announced that] Vice President-elect Pence, would becoming the chair of the transition for the next phase, and Governor Christie would be moving to a new role as just a member of the transition executive committee. I decided that it was right for me to leave [my] role as executive director. The only reason I was doing the transition work was because of my relationship with Governor Christie and the fact that he had tapped me to do it. So, it was appropriate that I move out of that role and hand off to Rick Dearborn, who carried [the transition] forward to the next phase.” 


Peaceful Transition of Power

January 21, 2020

Few have served with more distinction than Josh Bolten and Denis McDonough, chiefs of staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In this conversation, they talk about three types of transitions – into government, to a second term, and the handoff to the next administration.  

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Both Josh Bolten and Denis McDonough offer advice for the Trump administration as it approaches the end of its first term. Bolten recommends that the Trump administration appoint a transition director in preparation of his second term and encourages him to “rethink all your personnel.” Denis McDonough suggests that the president put the transition effort in the hands of “somebody you trust and is discreet.”  

Dave Marchick: So, what would you advise people on the Trump administration to do now that…they’re coming up on year four?”  

Josh Bolten: I mean, treat it like at a transition. Maybe appoint a transition director of some kind, somebody that the president is close to. Rethink all of your personnel and know what your priorities are…We sure weren’t thinking about how to reshuffle the Cabinet and that kind of thing. And those are all important things to think about. And that would be my advice to the Trump administration, Including to the president. But the president by personality—every president by personality—is going to be resistant to that kind of advice.” 

Denis McDonough: I think the same lesson that we talked about earlier about a bifurcated team and new legs and fresh perspective I think applies. And so, I think a best practice is to think about how do you put this somewhere [with] somebody you trust and who’s discreet, who can help you give a good hard look at [transition].”  

According to Josh Bolten, the Bush administration made a mistake by not treating transition—either to a new administration or a new term—as an opportunity in 2004. 

Josh Bolten: “…The Bush administration made the converse mistake, we didn’t really treat [2004] as a moment of transition. I mean as farsighted and thoughtful as I think President Bush was in directing a robust transition in 2008, I cannot say that that was very high on the agenda in 2004. …Anybody who’s elected president is a competitive person and isn’t inclined to say I need to plan for defeat. Right? And so, the person sitting in the oval office is likely to have the kind of personality who is focused on how are we going to win—and what are we gonna do after we win? And there was plenty of focus on that in the Bush White House in 2004. There was not a lot of focus in 2004 on planning for what to do if we lost. And I know Andy Card, my predecessor and our good friend, who was chief of staff at the time, tried to persuade the president to think about a second term, even in victory as a moment of transition…Even in victory as a moment to just think about the staff and the Cabinet from the beginning. And presidents just aren’t inclined to do that…Good advice is to seize the opportunity. Assume you’re going to win but treat it as a transition and make sure you’re prepared to hand off in good shape in case you don’t.” 

Josh Bolten says that both Obama and McCain ran as “not Bush” during the 2008 campaign, but the president “did not take it personally” and pushed for a smooth transition despite their critiques.  

Dave Marchick: “[How was] the hand-off from the Bush administration to the Obama administration so smooth, even though…a large part of the campaign of then Senator Obama was a repudiation of some…Bush policies?” 

Josh Bolten: “What I remember is that both candidates were running against the President… Obama and McCain were fashioning their campaigns as “not Bush” and, and God bless him, George W. Bush understood that and did not take it personally… Some of the rest of us did, but, I mean, President Bush was sufficiently unpopular towards the end of his term that 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 on the president’s direction we stayed out…He said prepare a really good professional, smooth transition because this is the first transition in modern history when the United States itself is underthreat. And we have a national security responsibility here to do the best possible job you can regardless of who wins this election.” 

Despite its success, Josh Bolten says that the Bush transition wasn’t “exceptionally well-organized” because they “didn’t have a playbook.”  

Dave Marchick: Why did you think it was important to actually start [planning transition] a year ahead [of the election]?  

Josh Bolten: “It’s not, it’s not more complicated than what the president [told me] when he gave me the direction: This is the first time in modern history that the territory of the United States is actually under threat. And we cannot afford those weeks and months of people trying to learn on the job. [They have] got to be as as well prepared and as well in place as we possibly can make them, beginning on January 20th. It was just that simple. And so, we put some effort into it. I can’t say it was an exceptionally well-organized effort because we didn’t, we didn’t have a playbook…There was—at least there was certainly at the time–no manual for how to, how to turn over government.” 


The Art of National Security Transitions

February 3, 2020

Former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy shares insights from her experience running the Agency Review team for the Obama transition and serving as Undersecretary of Defense. Flournoy also discusses the challenges associated with transitioning during an ongoing conflict, and the underrepresentation of women in national security.

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Dave: “So when you started your career, did you think you were going to be a trailblazer for women in the national security space?”

Michele: “I didn’t set out to be that, but I did find myself from the beginning in rooms where I was the only woman. I started my work working on nuclear issues, nuclear weapons, nuclear arms control and nuclear proliferation. And it was sort of the, the gray bearded priesthood and me in a lot of my early jobs. When I did have a chance to hire a team, I really tried to bring in a team that looks more like America and that had a greater diversity of background and perspective and experience to help us all make better decisions in the national security space. You’ve had female secretaries of state, but never a female director of a head of the defense department. It’s gotten better, but it’s still one of the least progressive areas in terms of gender opportunities.


The Obama Transition to Power

February 17, 2020

Head of Barack Obama’s 2008 transition, Chris Lu explains how the Obama team planned for effective governance on day one. In this conversation, Lu explains his role in the 2008 transition and the challenges he faced coordinating the biggest hand off of power in the world. He gives insights from his own experience and lays out the key elements for success in presidential transitions.

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Dave: So you know nothing about transitions, but he trusts you. He asked you to do this. How did you actually become an expert on transition? How did you get up to speed? 

Chris Lu: “The first thing I did is I went to talk to Jim Johnson who had, uh, run, uh, John Kerry’s presidential transition in 2004. And when I got to Jim’s office, he said, you know, I’ve been expecting you. He goes into his closet and pulls out all of his transition boxes from 2004, which also contained all of Al Gore’s materials from 2000, and, you know, as the next democratic transition, he hands them all to me.”

Dave: One of the things that you did after the Obama transition was you worked with the partnership for public service and you gave the partnership a bunch of documents from the Obama transition. Why did you do that?

Chris Lu: “I didn’t think I should be the keeper of all of the transition documents in my attic, which is kind of the case right now. It shouldn’t be the case where I go meet Jim Johnson and he reaches into his closet and pulls out a big box. It should sit somewhere other than me.

Dave: “So looking back on your time from when you violated what Obama told you to do, which was not until your wife to getting to election day to getting to inauguration date, what is the most important lesson learned that you would say?”

Chris Lu: “I am proud of the fact that we ran what is, as you say, considered one of the best transitions in history. And it’s in part because we prepared. But we were also flexible.”


The Carter Transition to Power

February 24, 2020

Stuart Eizenstat and David Rubenstein discuss their experience working on the Carter campaign, the transition and their own work in the Carter administration. The two explain that while Carter had an enormously consequential one-term presidency, the flawed transition had a lasting, negative impact on Carter’s presidency. 

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Dave: “Carter was the first president that actually diverted significant resources, both personnel and campaign resources, funding to transition planning. Why did he think that was important?”

Stuart Eizenstat: “I think the reason was Jimmy Carter is an engineer. He believes in planning and advanced planning. And he felt that if he could get a running head start by having a transition team begin to put together the kinds of policies we would implement—that this would help his presidency. . . actually the reverse happened and the reason is that David and I were heading the policy staff of the campaign. And unbeknownst to us until about a month before the election, Jimmy Carter had a parallel policy planning group for the transition headed by Jack Watson.” 

David Rubenstein: “Sometimes your brain can have two lobes to it and they don’t necessarily work together. So [Carter] had a lobe for the campaign and a lobe working on the transition and he didn’t really see that they had to interact a bit and I think that was a part of the problem.” 

Stuart Eizenstat: “The president basically gave the Cabinet secretaries free rein to name their own top deputies, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries [and] assistant secretaries who therefore were more loyal to them than they were to the president. Not a good idea.” 

Dave: “Okay, so you’ve highlighted no chief of staff, a flawed personnel process and this dissonance between the campaign and the transition…What was the impact of governing because of this flawed transition process?” 

David Rubenstein: “Carter is a very, very smart person, but he wanted to engineer everything, and he didn’t prioritize. He wanted to do so many things and he did do a lot of things, but he might’ve gotten more done if he has prioritized things a little bit better.” 

Stuart explained that the absence of a strong chief of staff impeded their ability to set priorities.  

Stuart Eizenstat: “The problem is so evident. We threw so much up at Congress. Tip O’Neill (Speaker of the House at the time) at leadership breakfasts would say week after week, ‘You’ve got to tell us your priorities. We can’t absorb all of this’… All of these [bills] came into Congress in the first year or so and they just bombarded Congress. So, we actually accomplished, as I mentioned at the beginning, an enormous amount, but it always paled in comparison to what we [gave Congress.]”

David Rubenstein: “I think Carter may have had the same phenomenon that may be the current president may have. When you’re president of the United States, you think you get the best information, you make the best decisions so forth, but you also think at the end of four years you’ve got this job down pretty well. You know how to do it and therefore you don’t really plan that much for the second term. I don’t really know, if Carter had won that election, exactly what his priorities were for the second term. I think it’s just like more of the same, but it wasn’t like what he had said during the campaign, ‘Here are the 10 things I’m going to do in the second term,’ because you’re kind of worn out. You kind of tell people this is what I did and elect me if you like what I did. Right now, today, if you were to sit down with President Trump, I’m not sure he could say here are the 10 things I want to do in a second term if I’m elected. So, I think somebody must, in a second term presidency, really focus at the end of that first term [and decide] what the [president is] going to do that’s really different or better than he did in the first term.”


The First – Lady? Husband? Spouse?

March 2, 2020

Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s chief of staff, shares insights on the evolution of the first lady’s role throughout history, obstacles they face transitioning to the White House and how the role might change after this year’s election. McBride also explores the unique challenges first ladies have faced, the timeless pressures associated with the role and her personal experience working with first lady Laura Bush.

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Dave: You mentioned the press secretary being an important position for the first lady, that the media scrutiny of first ladies is intense and a lot of it, frankly, is old fashion. How they look, how they dress? How, how did you deal with that and will that change?

Anita: It’s such a great question. It’s one that actually throughout our entire history as a country, it’s never changed to me. You even read history books, you read memoirs of other first ladies. Even though we don’t have a lot of Martha Washington’s writings, we do know she had said she felt the pressure for her hair and her clothes to be washed and dressed and set every single day as she was holding these salons to meet the citizens of this new Republic. From day one the spouse of the president, the first ladies, have felt this pressure on how they look and the scrutiny over that.

Dave: Looking back at history, there have been nontraditional spouses – Woodrow Wilson’s daughter served the role, Andrew Jackson’s niece and daughter-in-law served in the role. What are the challenges that nontraditional spouses or nontraditional partners might face in playing the role?

Anita: As long as they have the support of the president, they have an opportunity to make a difference just as if it had been a married spouse. There are many examples through our history where a niece, a daughter or someone has had to fulfill generally what has been a social role, but also have taken on [policy] issues. Like Harriet Lane Johnston, Buchanan’s niece, was very well known in Washington for being very engaged in social issues related to women and children. I see it as more of an opportunity to help this role evolve even further. If someone nontraditional is taking on the responsibilities but using it to the best of their ability, finding their voice, using their platform, which is so unique and helps move our country forward, then it’s an opportunity, not a challenge.

Dave: Let’s talk about a few of these individuals. We’re taping this on the Thursday before the South Carolina primary, right? And before Super Tuesday. We have no idea who the democratic nominee is going to be and we have no idea whether president Trump will win or lose. Let’s talk about a few of the individuals. Dr. Jill Biden, who’s a professor, an English professor, she was the first second-lady to hold a job. Could a first lady hold a job outside of being first lady?

Anita: Well, she has helped the country think differently on how someone in these leadership roles and our government can also have a private life. I’m sure it was not without her challenges balancing the schedule, wanting to travel with your spouse, but also having actual classwork to do. And she had eight successful years of doing that. If that were to be the case, that she has already found the way to balance it and would continue to do that.

Dave: So, she could be the first first-lady to work and have a full-time or part-time job.

Anita: I think we’re heading in that direction at some point.

Dave: Let’s talk about Michael Bloomberg. He’s not married. He spends time with a woman named Diana Taylor who was a very highly accomplished professional, had a number of senior corporate and government roles in New York. She defines herself as quote the person aside from his children who knows Bloomberg the best. What would be the unique issues that she would face if Mayor Bloomberg were elected president?

Anita: Well, if she chooses to move to the White House with him and actually live in the White House she would have to make the decision, does she want to take on those traditional roles that we some see come out of the East wing, you know the ones I’m talking about: it’s being the social hostess of the White House. Will she want to keep up her professional obligations? There is enough of a structure around the White House where that can work. I think the decision would be personal between the two of them as well. And would a President Bloomberg, if there were to be a such a thing, want to utilize any of the other members of his family in a role to fulfill some of these obligations too.

Dave: So we have the possibility of the first husband. What would you call a male in the role?

Anita: We wrestled with this in 2008, when Hillary Clinton ran for president – what would we call Bill Clinton? It’s a little complicated with him because he was former president. There were other names being batted about, office of the first spouse was the one that gathered the most traction.

Dave: Senator Amy Klobuchar, her husband is a distinguished professor. Senator Warren’s husband is also a lawyer and a professor at Harvard. Pete Buttigieg is married, his husband is a teacher. What would be the unique issues that each of them would face?

Anita: Again, do they want to continue in their fulltime professional roles, or take perhaps a temporary departure as they are assimilating into the White House? No one can completely prepare you for moving into the White House and what comes with that. Now you have this enormous staff around you, I’m talking residents, staff that basically handle all the things you always handled for yourself. And they’re there for a reason. They’re there because the responsibilities that fall on the president’s shoulders are so monumental and so huge, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The resident staff is there to make your life easier and we should want that for our presidents, and their families, because the person who feels the responsibility for the president’s wellbeing the most is the person closest to them: their spouse.

Dave: Let me ask you another question on pushing the boundaries of gender identity. So traditionally the first lady hosts other first spouses, most of whom are women, occasionally there are men. How would that work if they were a male spouse? And would that be different?

Anita: No, I think it would be great. We’re in the 21st century, in 2020 men and women work together all the time. And why, really, should this be any different? It’s using the White House again as another opportunity to help push the envelope a little further.  What if it were a President Buttigieg and his husband as the spouse in the White House convening counterparts from around the States, and even around the world, to work on projects together? My feeling is, it’s a platform. Whether it’s a male or female that has the privilege and temporary custodianship of that platform, just use that platform well. Use it to make a difference. Use it to help people. Use it to further your interests. If it helps further the growth and development and the evolution of our country, then so be it. Use it well.



The Romney Transition to Power Plan

March 16, 2020

Former governor of Utah and Romney Transition chairman, Mike Leavitt, shares how he planned the 2012 presidential transition had Mitt Romney won the election. Leavitt describes his experience leading the first transition to operate under the Presidential Transition Act of 2010, how the new guidelines changed the narrative around transition planning and how his team planned to follow the “gold standard” president Bush and Obama set in the 2008 transition.  

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Dave: So fast forward to the election, obviously the election outcome wasn’t what you wanted. How did you feel and what was your retrospective on this project? 

Leavitt: I’ve been involved in public policy for many years in different roles. And I would say that it was among the most challenging things and maybe the most exhilarating experience I have had in a concentrated period of four or five months.

Dave: I’ve heard you say this before – you were a three-time governor, secretary of health [and human services], head of the EPA, very prominent positions. But you said this was the most exciting, interesting, challenging thing you’ve ever done. 

Leavitt: I was given an opportunity to essentially stand up a government. Now, there’s obviously a constitution and laws and history and tradition, but this brought together a circumstance where I was required to call on my knowledge of lots of different issues. My knowledge about how state, local and national government works. The experience I had had working with members of Congress, having been a cabinet member myself, having worked at the white house. You can’t go through it without the belief that first of all, you’re doing something important. And second of all, that your candidate has a very good chance to win. And that this is a live-fire exercise you’re playing with has real consequence. And I felt that every day. Now, there were days when it felt there was more certainty that this would actually be implemented than others. But, I remember going to Boston for election night and had with me boxes of paper that would be put in front of the president-elect the next day starting at three o’clock and a whole series of decisions that needed to be made. We had a planning construct that I thought was extraordinarily useful.

Gov. Leavitt discussed his experience learning about planning transitions as he began the process of planning one, and why he felt it was important to document the process.

Gov. Leavitt discussed his experience learning about planning transitions as he began the process of planning one, and why he felt it was important to document the process.

Dave: You had been governor three times and had been HHS secretary, but you didn’t really know much about transitioning to the presidency. So how did you get up to speed? How did you learn? What did you do?  

Leavitt: The truth is I couldn’t find anyone who did. There was nothing aside from a couple of books that tend to have focused on the drama in the actual transition and not so much the preparation. I interviewed anyone I could find to begin to understand what needed to be done. In some ways part of the problem had been that there was no template for this, so we concluded very early we would keep good track of what we did. People could learn from our mistakes. And I think on balance that turned out to be a good strategy. 

Governor Leavitt on the experience working with the Obama White House while running a campaign against Obama, and how both teams worked tirelessly to prepare for the transition. 

Leavitt: We actually worked with Obama administration people. We had people who had been with the Bush administration and I recall a phrase that was used, “We’re all going to leave our swords at the door and have a discussion about something very important to the American people.” And I thought at the time – this would inspire Americans if they could see the seriousness with which this was being taken, to see opposing campaigns and the administration actually working together now. I had been in the cabinet when Bush 43 transitioned to the Obama administration and therefore it was the gold standard for transition. I was instructed by George W. Bush that we’re going to make this the best transition of power ever. And that led by example because by the time we got to the point of the 2012 election, Barack Obama issued a very similar kind of standard.

Dave: So most candidates would have said, it’s presumptuous for us to talk to people in Congress until [you win], when actually it’s one of the great innovations that you led, which is to talk to people on the Hill about getting people confirmed quickly – the priority positions. Why did you do that and weren’t you worried about being seen as too presumptuous?

Leavitt: One of the benefits of the 2012 transition was that we were under an obligation put forward by the Presidential Transition Act of 2010 to do this. Prior to that, candidates had been essentially required to do this under the cover of darkness because their opponent would routinely charge them with measuring the drapes at the oval office and it became a campaign issue. So we were very careful to make it low key, but we did have the mandate. And so we would play [play?] very directly with the Congress. We had candid conversations that we’re in the process of planning a transition. We acknowledge what this is and what it isn’t, but we are going to need your help. And so we knew that one of our primary objectives was we needed to work our way through a whole series of processes that would start with clearances and then would move into confirmation hearings that were required. 


Maintaining Morale during a Crisis

March 26, 2020

Former U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen led the U.S. response to some of the most challenging modern crises including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Allen discusses how he kept morale high when communicating with the disaster response teams, media and the country during times of panic. 

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In reflecting on our current situation, historical precedent and what we as individuals can do, Allen said, “These are very difficult times…when you’re in situations like this, you need to have as good an understanding as you can create for yourself of what you can control and what you can’t…and take advantage of the things that you do to control and optimize those.”  

Dave asked Allen how he improved people’s morale after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when people lost homes, jobs and more. He reflected on the dark days when he told the Federal Emergency Management workforce that he was “giving them an order they were to treat everybody they came in contact with as if they were a member of their own family: a mother, father, brother, sister and so forth. I said, ‘If you do that, two things are going to happen. One, you’re going to err on the side of doing too much, and at this point in the storm, I’m okay with that. Two, if somebody has got a problem with what you’re doing, their problem is with me.’ ”

Marchick asked how Allen keeps up his own morale as a leader in tough times.  

“I’ve always felt that when you’re under the most stress, either professionally, personally or even physically, that’s the time when your behavior and your actions are most visible and consequential, Allen said.  


The Master of Disaster Planning, Thad Allen

March 27, 2020

Admiral Thad Allen talks about his experience leading the U.S. response to some of the most challenging modern crises. Named the “Master of Disaster” by TIME Magazine, Allen discusses the coronavirus pandemic and how to find calm in times of panic.

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Dave: “Our work at the Partnership is focused on effectiveness in government and smooth political transitions. In your view, were our political leaders and our government ready for this crisis and where they prepare to implement the emergency response?” 

The admiral noted the critical role that career federal employees play in preparing for any crisis, and shared insights on how the political polarization of the country effects disaster preparedness. 

Admiral Allen: “The thing that has bothered me, and it’s bothered me for almost three decades now, is the more bifurcated and politicized we become as a nation, the more we’ve started to lose the dividing line between what’s a campaign and what’s governing. And when you try and run an operational response to a disaster or a crisis, and you confuse that with campaigning, you run the risk of failing of both.” 

Dave: “One of the challenges that you dealt with, and that I think President Trump and others are dealing with today, is the different responsibilities. The federal government may lead the effort, but really the States have all the resources and the responsibility on the ground. How do you balance the roles of the federal government, the States and the cities? And how do you get everybody lined up? Clearly today, all the governors, mayors and others who are delivering direct responses to the people in the coronavirus crisis are on different pages than the president. 

Admiral Allen: “I’ve said many times that each one of these events, and especially the one we’re dealing with right now, becomes an exercise in applied civics and sometimes we end up load testing the Constitution and whatever the basic authorities mean. I always start with the 10th Amendment, which basically says that all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and specifically disaster response, police powers, health and sanitation and those types of things are a state responsibility. The question is how you move beyond that if the problem exceeds the ability of the state to respond to, and that’s done usually through a disaster or an emergency declaration that allows the federal government to come into assist.” 

Admiral Allen gave thanks to the Partnership for enabling continuity of government and effectiveness among career federal employees. 

Admiral Allen: “I have to give kudos to the Partnership for Public Service, what they’ve been doing for the past several transitions, a continuity of government that’s not continuity of policy and things that are subject to change by the will of the people, by electing people, but continuity of government and the ability to maintain essential services has to be understood and respected by anybody that’s running for office. And it has to be depoliticized. It can’t be an immediate referendum on loyalty across two administrations.” 


The Fifth Risk and Coronavirus, a Conversation with Michael Lewis

March 30, 2020

Author Michael Lewis shares insights on the coronavirus pandemic and stories from “The Fifth Risk.” Lewis discusses the critical role federal employees play in managing the crisis, and his advice for presidential transition teams. Lewis also outlines the importance of effective government management, both in times of crisis and times of normalcy, and why we need to rethink what we’re told about the career officials running our federal government. 

Read the Highlights

Dave: When you were writing about government workers, it seems like a boring subject to write about – people that work in the government. There are stereotypes about them as bureaucrats and slow-moving. What were your observations when you met people that were longtime career federal officials? 

Michael: They were extraordinarily mission-driven, extraordinarily focused, passionate about the things they cared about. They were all moving and important characters, and easy to make a swing on the page because they cared so much about something that mattered so much, to which much of the country was completely indifferent or oblivious. I thought of them as our greatest patriots. It was as if you had a military that was off fighting and dying in a war without anybody acknowledging it. 

Dave: Having written a whole book about transition, you’ve spent a large chunk of time on it. What advice would you have for the Biden or Sanders team on what they should be doing and how seriously they should take a transition planning effort? 

Michael: It should be the number one priority, especially given what we’re living with now and what crisis might emerge between now and then… The biggest thing you’re being handed right now is this giant toolbox. A lot of the tools are broken, some of the tools are missing. But it’s all you’ve got. You can fill that toolbox up pretty quickly if you’re ready to go on day one, so the advice I would give them makes it a huge priority. No partisan litmus tests, the filter is not are you Democrat or Republican. The filter is, do you know what you’re talking about? Do you understand the subject? Do you have management ability? 

Lewis emphasized the importance of federal employees and the expertise they bring to their jobs. 

“If you think you know what a federal government worker is, maybe you think again. When you actually meet the people doing the jobs, you think, ‘Thank God they’re there.’”