Transition Memo to the President-Elect

November 6, 2008

The first time you are addressed as Mr. President, you will realize that your tomorrows are never again going to be like your yesterdays. Take the simple matter of words, for instance.

On Nov. 16, 1992, President-elect Bill Clinton gave robust support for moving quickly to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military, a second-tier promise in a campaign that was about “the economy, stupid.” Clinton later wrote that he was unprepared for the emotional response to his words. His presidency hit the ground stumbling. You also will find that your words, as never before, have consequences.

Presidential transitions have been part of my life for nearly half a century. So, Mr. President-elect, what follows are five tips for avoiding political minefields on the way to your inauguration.

Beware of Reorganitus

You are about to be besieged by proposals to reorganize government.

But always keep in mind that reorganizations come with costs, and not merely the cost of new stationery. Congressional committees will not take kindly to matters that may alter their jurisdictions. Changes within agencies create confusion for workers, if not outright hostility.

When President-elect John F. Kennedy went to the White House to meet President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Dec. 6, 1960, Eisenhower warned his successor, “Avoid any reorganization until you become well acquainted with the problem.”

On taking office, Kennedy promptly disbanded Eisenhower’s elaborate national security arrangements, considering them too bureaucratic. When confronted with the Bay of Pigs crisis, he found himself without a properly functioning advisory body.

There is also a lesson about listening. Those leaving government, even if of the opposition party, are usually anxious to pass along advice. The problem is that the incoming people are often too impatient to listen.

About Harboring Loyalists

There are folks who have spent tremendous energy trying to advance your cause and now want jobs. It would be grand if they were all experienced in government management. But take note of the trail left by the friends of Jimmy Carter.

Of the top eight White House positions, President-elect Carter gave seven to fellow Georgians, only one with experience in Washington. Carter said what he most needed were aides “who were compatible with each other and who were loyal to me.” His first legislative effort “alienated about as many members of Congress that you can possibly do,” according to budget director Bert Lance.

Kennedy, on the other hand, was probably the most skilled at finding appropriate positions for his loyalists, adjusting duties to their capacities and balancing insignificant responsibilities with other rewards.

Take No for an Answer

You will find no shortage of applicants willing to sacrifice for high-salaried government jobs.

Yet when seeking the right people for the top jobs, prepare to be surprised. President-elect Reagan was turned down by six of his first Cabinet choices, President-elect Nixon by four. Only Eisenhower claimed he was accepted by everyone.

A case history: In the 2000 transition, Paul O’Neill met with President-elect Bush and Vice President-elect Cheney and outlined all the reasons he should not be appointed Treasury secretary. Two years later, President Bush fired O’Neill for exactly those reasons.

Case history No. 2: President-elect Clinton on making Mack McLarty his chief of staff: “He told me he would prefer another job more suited to his business background. Nevertheless, I pressed Mack to accept the position.” McLarty was not a successful chief of staff, but he stayed in the administration and successfully completed a number of important international economic transactions.

The moral of the stories: Those who say no usually have a good reason, even if you think otherwise.

Know When to Fold

When a nomination is in trouble, count votes and move quickly if you don’t have enough of them.

The worst case was the nomination of John Tower, then a former senator from Texas, as secretary of defense. Bush 41 would not fold and became the first incoming president to be denied a Cabinet member of his choice. The best case: Bush 43 replaced labor secretary nominee Linda Chavez within two days of a controversy surfacing over her dealings with an illegal immigrant and was given more credit for acting expeditiously than blame for making a flawed appointment.

And One More Thing

Here’s my last piece of gratuitous advice — although it will be hotly challenged by Bill Clinton:

Never give major public policy responsibility to someone you cannot fire.