Presidential Transition

Activists helped Joe Biden win— will they lose out during the transition?

Heath Brown
Nov 9, 2020 · 4 min read

Research suggests why they may

Photo by Tabrez Syed on Unsplash

In the US, elections occur all the time, but presidential transitions — real ones across parties — happen rarely. There’ve been just five since 1980, meaning we know a lot more about what it takes to run a successful campaign than what it means to run a successful transition.

Based on research I’ve done since 2008 and as a member of the White House Transition Project advisory board, I’ve learned several things about how a newly-elected president can do it right.

First, effective transitions depend on the outgoing administration preparing to leave office.

Congress mandated this several years ago with a new law that requires advance planning by the White House and reporting on that planning three and six months before Election Day. So far, the Trump administration has done the minimum required by the law, organizing several task forces of high-ranking officials and delivering reports to Congress on time.

Unfortunately, unlike previous presidents, Donald Trump has not publicly endorsed this planning and routinely failed to endorse the principle of peaceful transitions of power. There are a host of reasons to worry that Trump will not cooperate as George H. W Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama did in the past.

Second, an effective transition depends on long-term planning.

George W. Bush began planning a year and a half before he won in 2000. This is because there are thousands of decisions to be made about personnel, police, and the organization of the government. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are no strangers to this practice, and organized a transition team months ago. All indications are that they’ve been busy preparing to govern and are now in a position to execute the plan they’ve prepared.

Third, an effective transition depends on transparency.

In the past, the transition period — before and after the election — happened in near total secrecy. Campaigns worried about accusations of “drape measuring” and “chicken counting”, and preferred to keep planning on the down low.

Over time, transitions have become more open and honest. Winning candidates have shared the names of who is on the transition team and required transition staff to abide by conflict-of-interest guidelines. However, lobbyists with ties to industry and special interests remain a concern. The Obama-Biden team imposed some of the most stringent rules to prevent lobbyists from influencing the direction of the new administration on behalf of current and former clients. When Donald Trump won in 2016, ethics rules were largely disregarded and lobbyists had an inside track on planning the Trump White House, trading on their access to re-direct federal action on dozens of issues to benefit industry.

The initial ethics plan shared by the Biden-Harris transition team shows promise to replicate the practice of the Obama-Biden team. The plan they shared in October is nearly a carbon-copy of the plan in 2008, barely a word changed.

Finally, whatever makes for an effective transition does not necessary make for a fair transition for all those with a stake in the new administration.

Successful campaigns depend on coalitions of “intense policy demanders” according to the UCLA school of parties. However, those diverse coalitions do not always hold equal power during the transition. It remains to be seen how the Biden-Harris transition team relies upon the support it got from traditional party Democratic Party power brokers as well as local activists. Activists were essential to expanding the electorate and driving up turnout for Democrats across the country, especially in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, but many do not have the long-standing connections in Washington that have made the difference during past transitions.

Will these activists now be given a seat-at-the-table during the transition?

Will they be given the power to influence key personnel decisions and shape the agenda pursued by the incoming administration?

Presidential transitions are rarely studied by political scientists. They happen too rarely and are viewed as too idiosyncratic to generalize about using standard social science methods. This is unfortunate because, just like campaigns and elections, theories of power, influence, and representation can help make sense of what will transpire over the next 11 weeks.

The Thought Project

Scholarship for the public good

Heath Brown

Written by

Heath Brown , associate professor of public policy, City University of New York, host Co-Authored podcast, written for The Atlantic, American Prospect, The Hill

The Thought Project

In this space, Graduate Center, CUNY faculty, students and administrators share the big thinking and big ideas generating ground breaking research and scholarship — informing New Yorkers and the world.

Heath Brown

Written by

Heath Brown , associate professor of public policy, City University of New York, host Co-Authored podcast, written for The Atlantic, American Prospect, The Hill

The Thought Project

In this space, Graduate Center, CUNY faculty, students and administrators share the big thinking and big ideas generating ground breaking research and scholarship — informing New Yorkers and the world.

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