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Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Top 3 To-Do's for Trump and Clinton's Presidential Transition Teams

By Anita McBride, Executive in Residence, American University's School of Public Affairs

Anita McBride speaks at a panel on the importance of presidential transitions.

Although journalists are focused on every twist and turn of this year’s volatile presidential campaign, soon they will be covering the next step in our political process – the transition of power from one President to another.

Yesterday morning I participated as part of a panel speaking to members of the news media about the transition and the key issues the next president will face. The event was sponsored by the National Press Foundation, CQ Roll Call, and the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

After the distasteful tenor and rhetoric of this campaign, some may question what happens once the ballots are counted, a winner is named, and the governing begins. The reality is both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump already have transition teams in place and they are preparing. The teams are working with the same GSA-provided resources, and in the same building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC – albeit on different floors. They also have the same access to information to help them understand the complexities of running the government and the sobering responsibility ahead if their candidate is elected.

It’s not an easy task – for those campaigning or supporting a smooth, peaceful transition. Here are my thoughts on the top three issues facing these teams during the presidential transition:

1. Ensuring Safety and Security of the American People.

The top issue facing any president is the safety and security of the American people. If Clinton is the next president, her team would come in with a deeper knowledge of how the government operates than Trump who has not held elected office. The expectation is that Clinton would be focused on foreign policy and diplomatic relations. However, national security is a growing concern for our country. Trump has questioned Clinton's experience and the current policies in place to keep Americans safe.

Through my work in the White House and other positions, I have been involved in four incoming and outgoing transition teams since 1987. We’ve learned lessons from previous administrations on the value of starting early. People coming into government need to be fully prepared. The delayed declaration of President George W. Bush as the winner in December of 2000 meant a truncated, private process and was an example of how a transition should never happen. It was something President Bush never forgot and he was committed to a better process for future presidents. The 9/11 terrorist attacks underscored the serious business of protecting the country and importance of cooperation between administrations to be prepared on Day 1.

2. Assembling and Appointing the Best Team.

Putting the new president’s people in place to lead the work of various agencies and departments is an important process. He or she must identify and appoint a strong White House staff as well as key personnel to lead departments and agencies. Personnel is policy and it takes time to find the right people. That means filling many staff positions in the White House and about 1,100 political appointments subject to Senate confirmation.

As the new administration takes over, it’s important to note how quickly these appointments are made and the background of those named. It will be interesting to see the response of the legislative branch. After so much contention in the election cycle, what will the working relationship be between the elected officials in the next four years? Political appointees are temporary custodians of positions in our government. We are part of a continuum that ensures the services of the government meets the needs of the governed.

3. Prioritizing Early Decision-making.

There is the early execution of decisions on policies you have promised to uphold, reverse or propose. Trump is campaigning on the promise of massive change. If elected, he wants to overturn executive orders he believes have hurt the economy and eliminate some federal departments. While a new administration can influence policy direction, the reality is many government operations are codified through congressional legislation. Despite talk of overhauling the system top to bottom, some institutional practices will have to continue.

I experienced the 2008 transition from President Bush to President Obama, which is the standard by which all transitions will be measured. There was a Transition Coordinating Council, a White House Executive Order, meticulously briefing binders with forms, templates, and expectations spelled out for the incoming team. President-elect Obama’s staff members spent time in the office with outgoing members of the Bush administration to help familiarize them with their jobs.

Since then, things have further improved the process of transition. Federal legislation in 2010 provided resources to prepare the transition process months before the general election – a drastic improvement from previous years. And in 2016, additional legislation and resources were enacted by Congress to support an even earlier transition effort.

It’s now time to move forward with a new team writing the next chapter in history. A smooth transition reaffirms the American people’s faith in institution of government. It has always been an example to the American people and to people around the world that the American transfer of power is peaceful and that’s the way it should be.