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COVID-19 shows why presidential transition planning matters so much

Heath Brown
Mar 17 · 3 min read

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign taught us many things, including the realization that the best planner doesn’t usually win the race. Voters tend not to be inspired by the candidate who is best prepared in favor of the one with a bit more sparkle.

That is until a pandemic exposes the brutal consequences of severe under preparation at all levels of government. COVID-19 has demonstrated the value of being ready, especially at the White House.

Unfortunately, our campaign traditions tend to squelch any discussion of preparing to govern, forcing candidates to under prepare or to do so in secret. Every presidential candidate fears accusations of presumptuousness — counting chickens before they hatch — if they let on that they are beginning to prepare for the reality of winning in November. During the 2008 campaign, John McCain accused Barack Obama of “measuring the drapes” of the White House when news of the future president’s pre-election transition planning surfaced.

Candidates then tend to plan in secret, discreetly organizing teams of advisers to plan out the mighty task of taking over a government with over two million employees. George W. Bush did this a year before his victory in 2000 and Barack Obama largely followed suit during the 2008 campaign. This leaves voters in the dark, uninformed on an important aspect of each candidate.

The sitting president also has a responsibility to prepare for the next administration, even if they are running for re-election. Federal law, in fact, requires this, and mandates the White House report on this pre-election transition planning six months before the election. We’ll know exactly how well President Trump is preparing for a possible transition out of office in May when an update is due to Congress.

This planning is critical and necessary, not an admission of presidential weakness or a challenger’s arrogance. In fact, Lisa Monaco — who sat on President Obama’s Transition Coordinating Council — explained in an article for Foreign Affairs the extensive coordination with incoming Trump officials in January 2017. She oversaw planning exercises on the most important national security threats at the time, including a pandemic-like scenario eerily similar to COVID-19.

Monaco also helped start the White House global health security and biodefense directorate which, despite the advice given by her team during the transition, the Trump White House disbanded in 2018.

This all raises many questions for President Trump, but also for the two leading Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. How are they preparing to govern? In which ways have they begun planning for their potential presidential transition this fall?

Voters should know the answers to these questions and should be deeply suspicious if the answers aren’t clear and decisive. Planning should be much more open and thorough, allowing voters to understand who is best prepared for pandemics or any other crisis situation that will inevitably occur in the future. COVID-19 reinforces what we all know deep down about the great risks and consequences of under-preparing.

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By Heath Brown, Associate Professor of Public Policy, CUNY Grad Center and John Jay College is the author of Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition.

Written by

Heath Brown is an associate professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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