With inauguration day two months away, experts talk presidential transitions of power

Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 12:10am

The University of Michigan Democracy and Debate Theme Semester hosted Kenneth Lowande, assistant professor of political science, and Chantelle Renn, special adviser of transition and management at the Center for Presidential Transition, in a Zoom webinar.

The University of Michigan Democracy and Debate Theme Semester hosted Kenneth Lowande, assistant professor of political science, and Chantelle Renn, special adviser of transition and management at the Center for Presidential Transition, in a Zoom webinar. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Shannon Stocking

LSA assistant professor Kenneth Lowande and Chantelle Renn, special adviser of transition and management at the Center for Presidential Transition, discussed the transition between the Donald Trump and Joe Biden presidencies in a Zoom webinar Wednesday evening. The University of Michigan Democracy and Debate Theme Semester hosted the event.

Lowande’s work focuses on presidential power, congressional oversight and bureaucratic policymaking. Renn works for the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization focused on governmental leadership.

Transition teams serve as the bridge between two very different executive leaders. For the past 200 years, the United States has experienced peaceful presidential transitions over the 75-day period between November and January.

Four University of Michigan professors — Michael Barr, Betsey Stevenson, Barb McQuade and Adrienne Harris — were recently selected to help Biden transition to power in January, according to a list released by the Biden-Harris transition team on Nov. 10.  

In a statement to The Michigan Daily after her role was announced, McQuade said she was excited to aid in the transition process.

“I am honored to be part of the Biden-Harris transition team and eager to help ensure a smooth transition at the Department of Justice,” she wrote.

Trump has not yet conceded the election despite Biden winning 306 electoral college votes in the Nov. 3 general election, well above the 270 necessary to capture the presidency. Trump has also refused to allow Biden and his transition team access to classified briefings, raising concerns about national security and public health risks as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens.

Lowande said that in order to fully understand presidential transitions, it is important to think about what kind of job the president has and why transitions are so important. 

“In the business world, we usually like to think about the president as the CEO of the government,” Lowande said. “But really, they’re the CEO of a couple hundred different organizations with different goals that are sometimes in conflict. They don’t have a shared measure of success, like profit. Most of the employees work outside of Washington. There are 2 million civilians and employees, a couple more million contractors. That’s more than the six largest firms in the U.S. So it’s a huge job.”

The president-elect hires about 4,000 political appointees. To execute ambitious policy goals and campaign promises, the president relies heavily on Congress and the judiciary. Once there is a new president-elect, there is not only a transition between the presidents but also between the cabinets and employees. 

“A lot of times, presidents are taking the reins during a crisis, sort of like the crisis from 2008 to 2009,” Lowande said. “And now the present economic and public health crisis that we're facing. So that said, their broad kind of tasks, as I understand them, are, one, they have to hire a bunch of people. Most of these aren’t confirmed by the Senate. So they have to staff up and they have to stamp off really, relatively quickly. They have to find people to fill important jobs in government, they have to get organized.” 

During the transition, the future president must decide how they will make decisions while serving as president. 

Renn separates the transition process into four phases. The first phase sets up the organization and framework of the transition process, which starts early to allow for ample time for the opposing transition teams to congregate and discuss the peaceful transition; the second phase is creating a transition team to fulfill campaign promises; and the third and fourth phases prepare the White House’s new employees to assume their positions.  

The fourth phase begins in the president’s first 100 days in office, Lowande said. According to Lowande, the first 100 days set the agenda for the president’s entire term. In the first 100 days of his term, Barack Obama took action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was a significant campaign promise, Lowande said.

“We saw that in the Trump administration, in the first week there are a number of really important directives that he signed, that we were talking about for months after that,” Lowande said. “That is the kind of thing that I would expect to happen now.” 

Renn said while every transition is unique, the Bush-Obama transition was particularly smooth.

“What made it work so well was I think the cooperation,” Renn said.  “The commitment of the team to be able to work with the incoming administration through briefings for intergovernmental coordination, through intelligence briefings, et cetera. So that I would say often, those are some of the hallmarks of what I call a gold standard of transition.” 

During the Q&A session, one attendee asked what advice the panelists have for students who may feel discouraged about pursuing a career in politics due to the tumultuous years under the Trump administration.

“A career in public service is something you should strongly consider,” Renn said. “(Civil servants) … I have talked to find profound meaning in their positions and they stay in their positions because they ultimately care about the work that they are doing … if you want your government to look like you and represent your interests, you know, the government needs you.”

Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu.


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