3 takeaways from our event on national security during presidential transitions
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3 takeaways from our event on national security during presidential transitions

August 28, 2023

The Center for Presidential Transition® recently hosted an event with Count Every Hero to celebrate the release of our new report, “Presidential Transitions are a Perilous Moment for National Security,” which uses four historical examples to examine how new administrations can address national security challenges during presidential transitions.  

Moderated by Center Director Valerie Smith Boyd, the event featured four leaders from across the national security apparatus who have protected our safety and security during transfers of presidential power or the start of a president’s second term: 

  • Former Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe.
  • Former Under Secretary for Management at the Department of Homeland Security Claire Grady. 
  • Former Army Secretary Louis Caldera.  
  • Former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.   

Citing decades of experience, the panelists emphasized the unique national security risks present during presidential transitions and outlined how to best minimize them.

Event recording. Panelists (left to right): Center for Presidential Transition’s Director Valerie Smith Boyd, former Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe, former Under Secretary for Management at the Department of Homeland Security Claire Grady, former Army Secretary Louis Caldera, former Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen.

1. Transitions create critical national security vulnerabilities. 

Presidential transitions are a vulnerable time for our nation. The handoff between administrations, or even the beginning of a president’s second term, includes many moving pieces that relate to national security: competing priorities between ingoing and outgoing regimes, relationship-building among newly assembled teams, and the exchange of large amounts of sensitive information. Transitions play out in full view of our enemies, who may take advantage. 

2. Officials must put country over party to foster smooth transitions, especially in national security roles. 

Rising political polarization has made how and when transitions occur a partisan issue. Adm. Thad Allen has seen the ways that this polarization can “start to color the processes” of transition, which are core to a well-functioning government and our democratic system.  

“Ideas and concepts…. [are] the basis on which people make decisions on who they are going to vote for. But they’re not self-executing,” he said. “You have to figure out a way to actually get the wheels of government turning. …The American public should expect the competency and ability to govern, not just campaign.”  

Though every handoff between presidents since 1992 has transferred power to the opposite party, officials must set aside ideological differences for the good of the mission. Under Secretary Grady described this characteristic as something that “sets the national security space apart.” 

3. Administrations should prepare national security appointees to take office on day one to maximize our country’s safety.  

Another transition challenge involves selecting, vetting and preparing political appointees to serve in key roles early in an administration. Across the last four presidential administrations, 64% of top Senate-confirmed national security positions remained vacant 100 days into a new administration. In second-term administrations, 46% of top officials left during the first six months after a president’s reelection, on average.  

These vacancies often require officials to step into high-level acting roles while the Senate confirmation process plays out. Our panelists praised these public servants, especially career officials, in national security agencies who go above and beyond to serve as sources of knowledge and continuity, and successfully manage “no-fail” national security missions.  

Still, to ensure new administrations have the national security leadership they need to best protect the country, Congress should reduce the number of Senate-confirmed positions, enabling more officials to take office without having to navigate a lengthy confirmation process that has only gotten longer in recent years.  

Protecting our national security requires substantial coordination and expertise, but never more so than during transitions. To learn more about national security challenges during presidential transitions, please watch the event recording or explore our full report

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