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The main responsibilities of a presidential transition team

December 9, 2020

In the months leading up to Election Day, presidential candidates rely on transition teams to prepare for office. These small teams of highly skilled professionals assume critical pre-election and post-election responsibilities, including vetting, selecting and appointing presidential personnel, coordinating national security briefings and security clearances, and organizing agency review activities.

On Transition Lab, the Center for Presidential Transition’s podcast, host David Marchick spoke to members of past presidential transition teams to learn more about their roles.

Organizing pre-election transitions

Richard Bagger, who coordinated President Trump’s pre-election transition efforts in 2016, and Ed Meier, who directed Hillary Clinton’s transition work that same year, recall managing small teams of about 25 people.

Bagger’s team recruited roughly 130 volunteers by Election Day to tackle post-election priorities: managing a multimillion-dollar budget, making roughly 4,000 presidential appointments and visiting more than 100 federal agencies. “We were confident that we could get the work done,” Meier said.

Both teams received key pre-election briefings from the Obama administration. Meier recalled visiting Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s office with Bagger and other transition leaders. “McDonough would assemble the entire White House leadership team so that we could go through briefings and walk through the transition process.”

Listen to “Two transitions planners reflect on the 2016 presidential election.

Staffing a new administration

As head of personnel for the 2008 Obama-Biden transition team, Michael Froman vetted, selected and appointed members of the White House and Cabinet, as well as agency appointees. He sought a qualified, diverse slate of candidates to provide the president-elect with lots of personnel options.

“My job was basically to create lists, to do some basic background checks from public material…and to assemble them in a way that the president-elect could digest.” Froman said.

Each president can make approximately 4,000 political appointments. By the end of his first year in office, President Obama had appointed 2,177, a figure most chief executives reach after two or three years.

Froman attributed this success to bringing transition staff into the White House. “It’s better to have somebody who is doing personnel during the transition [stay] into at least the first year of the administration,” he said. “Continuity is important because filling an administration is a very long-term effort.”

Listen to Michael Froman on selecting a president-elect’s Cabinet.

Conducting agency review

Agency review teams inform new administrations about the work of federal departments.

Lisa Brown, co-chair of agency review for the 2008 Obama-Biden transition team, organized agency review teams to collect critical information that enabled the president-elect and his senior key advisors to make key “strategic policy, budgetary and personnel decisions.”

“You want to make sure that when the new [administration] comes in,” she said, “it has the information it needs to handle the crisis of the day.”

Agency review teams try to efficiently process and pass along relevant information by engaging the agencies as quickly as possible. Brown noted that people on agency review teams should be familiar with the president-elect’s policies and described how she structured the teams to ensure its work would continue, even if someone took on a new role.

Listen to The art of agency review during a presidential transition.

On Transition Lab, leading political figures, media personalities and transition veterans discuss how they have managed or covered presidential transitions—offering a behind-the-scenes look at how presidents prepare to take office or begin a second term. Visit Presidential Transition Central now to learn more about the transition period, and read more about presidential transition on the Partnership’s blog.

This post is authored by Cora Martin, an intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.