About Our Work
“And then the president-elect realizes: I’m going to be taking an oath right from the Constitution and it says, preserve, protect, and defend…. But, the president cannot keep that oath without other people keeping their oaths. And those people who took the oath to follow are very young. Some of them too young to vote. Others of them may not have voted for you. But they’ll all keep their oaths, giving up life, limb, they give up joy, all because the president said, ‘I need help keeping my oath.’ And that becomes the greatest presidential burden that is carried. And you realize that the night before you take the oath.”
–former Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Jr., describing the pre-inauguration briefing on the nuclear codes.
“There’s nothing that can completely prepare you for the job of being President… You know, that first day after…they walk you into the Oval Office, then everybody leaves, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, man, now what?!’
— President Barack Obama, 2016
A letter to the White House Transition Project:
“You were a big help to the Transition Coordinating Council and the overall transition effort both in 2001 and 2008. Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise.”
–- President George W. Bush, 2010
Since 1997, the White House Transition Project has provided non-partisan expertise in all phases of democratic transitions, from constitution-building in emerging democracies to regularized, statute driven transfers of power. This page previews those services, beginning with highlighted essays or reports of special interest.
Follow the Transition
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Reports on the “Stand Up” – (day 90)
This report summarizes five measures of the Biden Administration’s progress in standing up the American Executive. It covers filling the government’s “critical stand-up positions,” the general pace of nominations and confirmations, a recurring monitor on gender, and a summary of the backlog of nominations. For additional details, see our web page on appointments.
|The Critical Stand Up Pace
Comparing Initial Starts on 276 Positions Critical to Governing
|Biden’s Pace||Trump’s Pace||
Biden continues to close in on the Trump record for worst standup. Most of the difference in the two rates on filling the critical positions still remains due to the difference between what Obama and Trump left behind leaving office. Obama left Trump a large number of fixed term critical appointments (like the Federal Reserve) already filled for the transition while Biden came into office with far fewer such positions already stood up by Trump (51 vs 38). This is the impact of a poor transition out and an uncoordinated transfer of power. While the large backlog on Biden nominations in the Senate would easily close this gap, the Democratic majority continues to only walk or only chew gum. But not both.
Summary: Setting Sights on Record Numbers.
Early on, the Biden transition put the new administration in an excellent position to begin filling out its new government. After that early surge, though, nominations faltered but have now begun to track well above the average path of previous administrations (see bold green line) and on the way to setting a record over all predecessors. The current path on nominations also has begun to start the typical “takeoff” when a new administration learns how to recruit and begins to pick up the pace. The Biden team started its takeoff about ten days earlier than normal.
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Summary: Senate still stalled on confirmations.
Since the beginning of the current appointments system, few Senates have had a slower stand-up process. The lack of Senate work on Biden nominations has led inevitably to an historically low number of confirmations, holding up the government. The general standup now also has a large backlog to work on (see the numbers on nominations not confirmed). After earlier signs of picking up the pace, the Senate’s standup performance has not rebounded from its Easter recess.
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Summary: The Senate continues to stand norms on their heads.
For all previous administrations, the greatest proportion of the time associated with getting a government position filled occurred in the Executive, but for President Biden’s nominees, the pace of Senate deliberations has flipped that typical pattern. The time it takes for the Senate to deliberate on nominees has exceeded the time the Executive takes on identifying and vetting a nominee. And the gap continues to get bigger. That shift represents the only time in the past 40 years that the Senate has taken longer than the Executive. For Biden, the Senate floor deliberations (at 2 weeks) have taken more than three times the average time for the past 6 presidencies (at 4 days). The current Senate majority is taking even longer than Trump’s Senate majority did. And the pattern for committee deliberations, normally less partisan, (now at 28 days) has more than doubled the average.
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Summary: Still Record Setting.
On gender, the Biden record continues to double the average of his predecessors; almost doubles the rate of even the average Democratic predecessor. Almost triple the rate for the GOP. While the cabinet is more diverse than any other, the new administration’s commitment to gender representation throughout the government stands out as especially significant. New numbers on White House staffing also suggest this same pattern on gender.
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Summary: The Record Setting May Run Out of Gas.
In the Executive, backlogs happen when vetting announced nominees slows the numbers of nominations. In the Senate, its backlogs happen when the Senate has more nominations to deal with than time. The current Democratic Senate has a record setting number of unconfirmed Biden nominations waiting in the wings (almost twice the average), allowing them the chance to surge forward. The Executive, on the other hand, has cleaned out far more of its backlogged announced nominees than the average White House would have at this point. Searching for potential nominees seems curiously slow.
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Details of a Peaceful Transition
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Congressional Testimony on Presidential Transitions
Dante Fascell’s goal of institutionalizing a transition process based on access and cooperation has worked for almost all the presidential transitions
Congress and the President recognized then and continue to acknowledge the importance of an effective transition to a good start for a new President and his team. Having a well-organized operation developed early in the election year benefits a President. Organizing early with an experienced and knowledgeable staff, an incoming President can seize the political momentum and establish his brand of leadership at a time when the public is paying attention. See the complete testimony of WHTP Director Martha Joynt Kumar by clicking here. To view the actual testimony and committee hearing, click here.
Presidential Activities During the 100 Days
On day 1, new presidents step onto the thin ice of history, alone. What do they do all day, who do they see, and what choices affect both? A new report from WHTP answers these questions. It summarizes the distribution of time dedicated to responsibilities, what do presidents trade-off to increase their engagement in communications, and with lots of “senior advisors” who gets cut out of the room. For a copy, click here.
The Potential For Presidential Leadership
The challenge of a new transition inevitably involves how to lead. Now, more than ever, a new president will face that challenge. In an essay on how opportunity and persuasion shape the potential for leadership, renown presidential scholar George Edwards suggests “Staying private is likely to contribute to reducing gridlock, incivility, and public cynicism and deserves a more prominent role in the president’s strategic arsenal.” For a copy, click here.
WHTP’s Public Information Events
(as of 04/09/2021) No events currently planned.
See all of our briefs here.
Life in OMB is not in the fast lane. Life in OMB is in the oncoming lane.
— Former Director OMB, Jim Miller
The joint product of 21 former senior OMB leaders, the WHTP briefing book on OMB offers a unique view on this critical executive agency and what it takes to run it. Many agree that the requirements for leadership at OMB are far different than what many in Washington expect — having experience in the congressional budget process, for example, is widely agreed upon as not one of them. Not unexpectedly, many in Washington simply don’t understand what it takes to lead at OMB and carry through on the President’s mission. To get your own copy of the guide, click here.
This synopsis summarizes the WHTP briefing book on the White House Chief of Staff, click here.
In the end, every chief of staff is a servant of the president, and the more independence they ask for or try to carve out for themselves, the more likely they are to fail.
It once was possible to argue that the White House could be run without a chief of staff. Those days are gone. The complexity of the modern White House requires discipline and coordination that can only be achieved if there is a central coordinating point, someone other than the president to oversee the operation. If independence and authority are both the necessity of a White House and a recipe for failure, then how do White House Chiefs of Staff proceed. This new brief brings the wisdom of experience to bear on this question from the advice of those who have borne the responsibility. Click here for a copy.
Once the epitome of a spare part, the Vice Presidency has become a central element of every administration’s successes or failures.
“Two brothers went off to make their fortunes. One went to sea and the other became Vice President. Neither was ever heard from again.” No other job in the American constitutional system has seen a greater transformation than the Office of the Vice President. This new briefing book on the vice-president outlines the dimensions of that change and how to manage the opportunities and responsibilities of this newly defined position in the White House.
See all of briefs here.
Technical Aspects of Peaceful Transitions
The New Government Stands Up
Using the Senate’s “Nuclear Option” slowed confirmations, …again
A new WHTP study analyzes deployments of the “nuclear option” to limit the filibuster, along with other Senate changes affecting deliberations on nominations (including limits on “blue slips”). Senate leaders of both parties intended these changes to promote faster consideration of the president’s judicial nominees. That hasn’t happen. Here’s why, what did happen, and how to strengthen the appointments process before the next time. The highlighted changes would actually reduce partisanship.
WHTP’s Research Summary on Appointment Politics outlines in memo form what research tells us about how to get ready for and then improve the appointments process, including how to limit the impact of growing partisanship.
Presidents and the Press
Trump in Comparative Perspective
Using her unique data on press interactions, WHTP’s Martha Joynt Kumar compares President Donald Trump to his five predecessors showing how each used the communications strategies that brought them to the presidency. In that way, President Trump mirrors his predecessors. But in other ways, those five predecessors had more in common with each other than with President Trump. See this analysis by clicking here.
US Presidency Operations Research
Emerging Democracy Transitions
US Constitutional Transitions
WHTP’s Basic Transition Services
Since 1997, the White House Transition Project has interviewed a wide range of Assistants to the President about the best ways to carry out the president’s transition to governing and manage their responsibilities in governing. WHTP scholars who specialize in the various operations of a White House, use these interviews to provide a guide for the new presidential team.
Original Interview Foundations for Office Briefs
In addition to these basic resources for US Presidential Transitions, WHTP maintains a collection of its basic interview, through our long-standing partner, the US National Archives. For a sample of these interviews currently in the public domain go here.
Essays on Running Transitions
To adjust critical attitudes about presidential transitions, WHTP maintains a collection essays on how transitions work and how others have learned the lessons about how to prepare. See the drop down menu under the banner for general essays on transitions.
WHTP’s Original Research
To supplement our basic transition resources, WHTP maintains robust research agendas on topics of interest to the US Presidential transition and to normal White House operations. Some of these studies result from requests originating with previous White House staffs as they try to improve their governing operations. This section previews some of these studies.
Current WHTP Studies On Presidential-Press Relations
In one of our periodic reviews, Martha Joynt Kumar reviews presidential interchanges with the press over the last six presidencies and as of 30 months into their administrations. Read the report: Six Presidents Interchange’s with Reporters at 30 Months – Kumar. Some of the highlights:
- President Trump answers 50% more questions from the press than the average for the last five presidents.
- Presidents have expanded their press relations into forums they believe are their strong suit.
- While most presidents aim their communications to the average citizen, President Trump aims at his supporters alone.
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Current WHTP Studies on Presidential Work Routines
The use of time represents the president’s most valuable asset. A commitment to one responsibility necessarily precludes commitment to another. And as a president faces changed circumstances, changing commitments creates trade-offs between responsibilities. Using the daily minute by minute logs of presidents, WHTP builds a picture of typical presidential commitment and trade-offs. These studies focus on two topics: the transition period through to the 100th day and crisis management. See for example, Presidential Work in the First 100 Days.
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WHTP Reports on Presidential Appointments
The pace of appointments in both the executive and in the Senate accounts for the ability of any administration to carry out its responsibilities to the electorate and to the nation. Appointments fulfill the president’s agenda set by the election and they also stand up the critical functions of the national government, from transportation to space to global economics and national defense.
Our personnel trackers report on deliberations across the entire appointments process:
- WH Identifies: The White House search for appropriate nominees from available candidates. Typically, this stage culminates in an announcement of the “president’s intent to nominate” a candidate.
- Executive Review: The executive branch conducts vetting of the candidate. This stage culminates in sending credentials to the Senate as an official nominee.
- Sen Comm Vetting: The first of two Senate stages, a committee investigates the nominee, culminating in a committee report and recommendation to the full Senate.
- Sen Floor Process: The final disposition of a nominee in the Senate, culminating in floor vote to confirm the nominee.
WHTP’s Personnel Trackers follow the pace of appointments in the new administration by comparison with administration’s dating to the rise of the modern appointments system during President Reagan’s first year. The trackers cover two groups: a common set of 220 “critical” appointments and a larger, more diverse group of 980 presidential nominations.
WHTP reports these results in 10 day increments during the first two years. See our Appointments page for more detailed information.
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