Insights and Impact

A Window of Opportunity 


golden eagles passing arrows between them

For all of the scholarship on the American presidency, works devoted to the handoff from one administration to the next—regarded as the most vulnerable period in the entire political cycle—can be counted on two hands. With his new book, The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of America’s Presidential Transitions, David Marchick, the new dean of the Kogod of the School of Business, has made a sizable contribution to a small, albeit critical, field. 
“In Lincoln’s [first inaugural address], he harkened to the better angels, and for most of our history, presidential transitions did appeal to the better angels,” Marchick says. “There have been some bad ones, but in the modern era—really since Carter—transitions have been a bipartisan affair.”
Marchick has served in two presidential administrations, most recently as COO of the US International Development Finance Corporation during the first year of President Biden’s term. He worked as managing director of the Carlyle Group for 12 years and volunteered for 16 months as director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service, where he served as a key advisor to the Biden transition team, engaging with more than 100 federal agencies on planning efforts. It was out of his work with the Partnership for Public Service—including hosting its Transition Lab podcast—that the book, coauthored with Alexander Tippett and A.J. Wilson, was born.
Marchick says the “gold standard of transitions” was Bush and Obama in 2008—because of lessons learned eight years earlier during the handoff between Clinton and Bush.
The average transition is 75 days, during which more than 4,000 political appointments must be made. However, because the 2000 election was contested, with the Supreme Court ruling on Bush v. Gore more than a month after Americans went to the polls, the Republican victor’s transition was a mere 35 days.
“He had a harder time getting his people in place, and eight months later, 9/11 happened. At the time, Bush had just over 50 percent of his senior national security people in place—more than half of whom had only been there for two months,” Marchick says. When the 9/11 Commission launched its investigation a year later, it determined that the truncated transition “imperiled Bush’s ability to get his people in place, and therefore undermined national security preparedness.”
That stuck with Bush, so in 2008, he instructed chief of staff Josh Bolten to ensure that the next president would have a longer, smoother transition. 
“Josh started organizing government agencies and creating processes that required each cabinet officer to prepare briefing books, which set in [motion] a set of standards that later were enumerated into law—it’s now required,” Marchick says. With the US fighting two wars and in the midst of the Great Recession, the outgoing and incoming transition teams worked with Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke to create confidence in the country’s banking system, thus keeping it stable.
As a result, “they shortened our recession, eased recovery, saved more people from losing their houses, and helped the country,” Marchick says. 
He points to the transition between Buchanan and Lincoln in 1860 as the worst in American history. “Within a few weeks, seven states seceded, the Buchanan government was paralyzed, half of his cabinet supported the South, and Lincoln was in Springfield, Illinois, with basically no communication with Washington.”
The most recent transition between Trump and Biden was a close second, Marchick says. “In the 233 years since George Washington handed the reigns to John Adams, no shots were fired, no troops were alerted, and no one died. That’s the miracle of the United States until January 6, 2021.”