Massive Reorganization Awaits Next President

It's 14 weeks until November, but political types are already thinking about January — and the White House transition. Last week, Republican John McCain accused Democrat Barack Obama of jumping the gun by appointing a transition team. But presidential scholar Paul Light tells host Andrea Seabrook that historically, the best transitions start almost a year before Inauguration Day.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Whoever wins on November 4, they'll do well to get a little sleep that night. November 5 is going to be a doozy. That's because the president-elect has less than three months to orchestrate a massive change of staff in the executive branch.

You know the old saw about how hard is it to turn a tanker ship? Well, this is more like synchronized tanker aerobics. Paul Light is a professor at New York University. He specializes in presidential transitions, and thanks for coming in.

Mr. PAUL LIGHT (Professor, New York University): Delighted.

SEABROOK: So give us a quick rundown of the kinds of decisions a presidential-elect has to make before he takes office.

Mr. LIGHT: Well, you've got to figure out who you're going to appoint to the key offices in government. You know, there are 3,000 political positions the next president will fill.

SEABROOK: So not just cabinet secretaries but undersecretaries, assistant to the assistant undersecretary.

Mr. LIGHT: You know believe it or not, there is a title called assistant assistant secretary, so you've got to be very careful about filling that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIGHT: Deputy associate, deputy undersecretaries. I mean, it's a real nightmare, but every one of those positions has to be carefully vetted, but your next challenge is to clean up the mess of your predecessor. You know, do you want to submit some budget revisions? You know, President Bush has a budget going through the process, and he'll be submitting it before he leaves, and the next president will have the opportunity to revise it.

SEABROOK: You've got guess that whether it's McCain or Obama, they're going to want to change a few things when they first come in.

Mr. LIGHT: Yeah, we assume that McCain will go after some earmarks. Certainly, Obama will want to revise priorities, but everybody involved in policy right now thinks their issue is the most important next year, so there is a big policy component here.

The president-elect has to decide what comes first. If you throw everything at Congress as you come out of the transition, you're going to get nothing.

SEABROOK: We're talking about this in part because of some campaign bickering that took place last week. Barack Obama announced he'd already appointed a transition team. They were working sort of behind the scenes. John McCain said that was like dancing in the end zone before Obama had even reached the 50-yard line. What do you think?

Mr. LIGHT: Actually, Obama is late. Most transition planning starts in March, April, some start in the year before. The Ronald Reagan transition in 1980 began in March. It really played out to his benefit in the 1981 budget and tax cuts.

SEABROOK: Are there presidential transitions that have not been properly planned for and therefore has resulted in not-so-great first couple months?

Mr. LIGHT: Well, every president since Carter has done advance transition planning before the convention. The Clinton and Carter transitions were disasters because after Election Day, the president-elect and his campaign staff basically dumped the plans and started over again.

So the transition-planning operation has to be well integrated with the campaign so that campaign officers don't get angry that they've been cut out of the process. You know, you're talking about personnel. People are thinking about whether they're going to be working in the new administration, so you've got to consult.

SEABROOK: So we know that now, the campaigns are vetting potential vice-presidential candidates.

Mr. LIGHT: Right.

SEABROOK: After that's decided, does that vetting apparatus turn towards those other possible top appointees?

Mr. LIGHT: It's very difficult to start vetting your appointees during the campaign because the amount of information you're collecting from each one is so detailed that you can't really go out and start vetting without revealing.

Any presidential appointee can go to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management Web site and get the forms they're going to need to fill out. We'd recommend that they don't go because it'll frighten them into creating a cocoon from which they never emerge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIGHT: The forms are just unbelievable, and you can't really start vetting those forms until you have the FBI doing its investigations, the Office of Government Ethics does its investigation. The paperwork is a nightmare.

SEABROOK: I know you have called for public funding, at least some public funding, for presidential transitions. Why?

Mr. LIGHT: Actually in 1988, the Senate did pass some legislation to provide transition planning pre-convention, but the notion was hey, you know, let's send the signal that transition planning is okay.

Interestingly enough, the House rejected the Senate's bill because Representative Jack Brooks, who was an old war-on-waste kind of guy, said gee, you know, we're paying for one transition that's going to be used, and we're paying for another who won't, and so it was cut out.

You have to be able to say publicly look, I'm doing this. This is an important part of being a candidate for president. We've got to think about governing before the election occurs, and it may be wasteful to some degree because I could lose, but it's the responsible thing to do.

SEABROOK: Is it more difficult for a transition to take place when there is also a shift in party?

Mr. LIGHT: In theory, but I've found in looking back over time, that intra-party transitions are just as bad.

SEABROOK: Really?

Mr. LIGHT: George H.W. Bush fired everybody from the Reagan administration.

SEABROOK: From the Reagan…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIGHT: You know, he just wanted to set his own tone. He wanted to show that he was different. The transition was tough and hard-nosed, and whether your predecessor was your boss, as in Bush's case, or whether it was your adversary, it's just a very difficult thing to manage.

SEABROOK: Paul Light teaches at NYU's Wagner School of Public Service. His new book is titled "Government Ill-executed." Paul Light, thanks very much.

Mr. LIGHT: Very happy to be here.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: