Media advance false claim that Obama's reported transition plans are unusual or unprecedented -- but Presidents Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter also planned ahead
Research ››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI
On Fox News, David Asman falsely claimed of Sen. Barack Obama's reported plans for a White House transition months before the November election: "It's never been done before." Similarly, on MSNBC Live, U.S. News & World Report's Kenneth Walsh asserted that Obama is preparing for taking office "very early, and it plays into this notion that the Republicans are talking about, about Obama being too arrogant, that he has sort of a sense of inevitability that has set in there." However, a Media Matters review confirms that Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter all planned for a White House transition months before the election.
On the July 24 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, guest host David Asman falsely claimed of Sen. Barack Obama's reported plans for a White House transition months before the November election: "It's never been done before." After Temple University assistant professor Marc Lamont Hill said, "I'm not convinced that it's never been done before," Asman replied: "Well, I can't think of an example, and you can't think of an example. ... That's two out of two people." Similarly, during the July 24 edition of MSNBC Live, host David Shuster said that the Obama campaign "released some confirmation today that they have started to organize a transition team should Obama win. That does seem a little premature, right?" U.S. News & World Report's Kenneth Walsh replied, in part: "[T]his is very early, and it plays into this notion that the Republicans are talking about, about Obama being too arrogant, that he has sort of a sense of inevitability that has set in there." In addition, reports by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe, like MSNBC Live hosts Alex Witt and Contessa Brewer, uncritically reported attacks by either the McCain campaign or the Republican National Committee criticizing Obama for setting up a transition team before the election. However, as New York University professor of public service Paul C. Light noted in a July 25 column on The Huffington Post, "Obama has plenty of historical precedent to draw upon." Indeed, as Light noted and a Media Matters for America review* confirms, Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter all planned for a White House transition months before the election.
In a July 25 column on The Huffington Post, Light wrote:
The question is not why Obama made the decision, but why Sen. John McCain has not. Instead [sic] attacking the Obama campaign for "dancing in the end zone," McCain should have appointed his own planning team long ago.
Obama has plenty of historical precedent to draw upon. On the Republican side of the aisle, Ronald Reagan began his 1980 planning effort in early spring under a senior confidant. The planning produced the fastest transition to governing in modern history, which translated directly into Reagan's victories on budget and tax cuts only six months into the term.
George W. Bush also began his planning early, which produced a remarkably disciplined transition that laid [sic] set the stage for another round of tax cuts. It is hard to imagine how the transition could have succeeded without it. Given the Florida impasse, it is hard to imagine how the Bush transition could have succeeded without the pre-election planning.
On the Democratic side, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also began their planning early, but waffled when it came time to use the plans. Under intense pressure from their campaign staffs who rightly complained about a lack of consultation, both decided to start planning again [sic] all over again the morning after the election.
The decision not to plan for the transition is not just presumptuous on McCain's part, it is irresponsible. The next president faces a huge agenda of national problems that must be addressed as soon as possible. Instead of criticizing Obama for planning, McCain should congratulate him for taking an essential step toward governing. If anyone should have moved first, it should have been McCain. He is the one with the long resume after all.
Similarly, Congressional Quarterly blogger and PoliticalWire.com editor Taegan Goddard wrote: "It's standard procedure for all presidential campaigns to begin this process early since there are less than three months between the election in November and the inauguration in January."
Indeed, Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter all began their transition plans well before the November election:
President George W. Bush
As Media Matters for America documented, in a chapter from The Nerve Center: Lessons in Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff (Texas A&M University Press, 2004), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill associate professor Terry Sullivan wrote that in the spring of 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush asked Clay Johnson, who later became the executive director of the Bush-Cheney transition team, to "develop a plan for what we should do after we win." During the summer of 2000, Bush agreed with Johnson's assertion that it would be "irresponsible not to be doing this" and "approved Clay Johnson's program" for a presidential transition. Sullivan sourced the information to a September 2002 interview with Johnson. From Sullivan's chapter:
The former Chiefs of Staff had convened in Washington to invest their substantial and collective reputations in publicly underscoring the respectability of and need for early planning. By their collective appearance, they hoped the country would understand that it no longer could afford presidential candidates, or media, or voters who thought such planning presumptuous. Beginning in the spring of 1999, Governor Bush reorganized his staff, moving his then Chief of Staff Joe Albaugh into the campaign as director and Clay Johnson, III from Appointments Director to Chief of Staff. Governor Bush then charged Johnson to "develop a plan for what we should do after we win." A year later with the primary season behind him and the prospects of the general campaign settling in, Candidate Bush worried about their planning effort finding its way into the campaign coverage. Having thought through this problem for almost a year, Johnson responded by stressing the necessity of the task. "It has to happen," he recalls telling the Governor, "We just have to figure out the best way to spin it. It's irresponsible not to be doing this." Persuaded and committed to his earlier decision, Candidate Bush took Johnson's advice. Thus, the former Chiefs of Staff reached a second of their goals when, only a few days after the [June 2000, Washington] Forum [on the Role of the White House Chief of Staff] and bolstered by Johnson's own argument, the Bush for President senior campaign staff approved Clay Johnson's program, setting out eight goals for their presidential transition still five months in the future, if at all.
In the spring of 1999, I was Gov. George W. Bush's appointments director, in charge of a small group that helped the governor appoint about four thousand people to different state boards and commissions and full-time positions. When the governor decided to run for president, he asked me to succeed his chief of staff, who was leaving to direct the campaign. He also asked me to develop a plan for setting up his new administration, or as he put it, "develop a plan for what we should do after we win."
In the spring of 2000 I also began to visit with the likes of Jim Baker, George Shultz, and Ed Meese, who had been involved in setting up and guiding previous administrations at the highest levels. I thought the most important conclusions from all this input were as follows:
*Campaign leaders should not be in charge of the transition. Campaigns are about winning, whereas transitions are about preparing to govern. By necessity, campaign leaders are unlikely to have any time to work on the transition before the election.
Based on this review of past efforts, our transition team laid out the following [eight] goals for ourselves to prepare to assume all executive-branch responsibilities by inauguration day.
These goals were agreed to by Governor Bush and senior campaign officials around June, 2000, and with running-mate Richard Cheney in August. No one working on the campaign wanted to or really could focus on transition issues, so those discussions were to be brief or discussed over lunch.
Echoing his reported assertion that "[i]t's irresponsible not to be doing this," Johnson wrote in a paper for the July/August 2008 edition of Public Administration Review:
This is to lay out my personal thoughts and recommendations regarding the upcoming presidential transition of 2008, based on my experience as the executive director of the presidential transition of 2000, the research I did to prepare for that assignment, and the resources I know this next administration will inherit. General. Six months or so before the election, designate someone to, at a minimum, plan the transition and, preferably, prepare to be the executive director or chief operating officer of the transition. Don't worry about jinxing the campaign or being too presumptuous: It is irresponsible for anybody who could be president not to prepare to govern effectively from day one. ... Every candidate must prepare to govern, starting months before the conventions when each officially becomes the candidate.
President Bill Clinton
Although a host of difficulties would soon crop up, a failure to recognize the need to move early on transition matters was not one of them. Indeed, following what now had became a tradition among presidential candidates, Clinton began to think about his presidency well before election day. Shortly after the July [13-16] 1992 Democratic National Convention, he tapped his campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor, to head up a small transition planning operation.
The emphasis on planning early, absolutely critical. No doubt about it. How could you possibly make all those appointments, get ready for a submission of a budget, prepare your inaugural address, get your policy agenda clarified and streamlined and disciplined and not have done anything before the Wednesday after the, the election victory? You can't do it. I mean, 75 days just isn't enough time.
So sensible early planning is an absolute must.
We had a team that began to meet in Rhode Island, great secrecy, in June of '92. Bob Rubin, Bob White, a group of people that became critical to the Administration later on, met day after day putting together an elaborate critique of the Bush budget and a proposal for a new budget. A lot of work on key appointments, trying to get the domestic policy focused clear, and so forth. Never leaked out. There was never a single word in the press about it, which we were all very, very proud. Only seven of us were doing it. And we thought that we had a really great package of advice to give the new President if he -- well, to give Clinton if he became the new President.
President Ronald Reagan
Senior Reagan aide Edwin Meese wrote in his book, With Reagan: The Inside Story (Regnery Gateway, 1992), about his early discussions relating to Reagan's transition plans:
Late in 1979 an old friend, Pendleton James, had asked me what he could do to help Reagan in the coming presidential election. I told him that he could best use his talents by preparing a plan for the presidential personnel operation -- just in case we won. Pen, a leading professional in the executive search business, had served as a presidential personnel staff member in the Nixon White House and was well qualified to oversee the personnel-picking process that would face a new administration.
When I first mentioned this to Pen, he thought I was joking; the following spring, when the subject came up again, he asked if I were serious. I assured him that I was, and he began quietly to plan for a personnel operation from his Los Angeles office. In September of 1980, he moved to a small office in Alexandria, Virginia -- away from the campaign headquarters -- where he assembled a small staff who were not involved in the campaign itself. Most of them had previous experience in other administrations. In two months this group, many of them working part time in the evenings, had compiled the necessary data on some three thousand appointments that would have to be made. They also developed a system for recruiting qualified candidates and handling the thousands of expected recommendations and applications.
In a chapter in The In and Outers: Presidential Appointees and the Problems of Transient Government in Washington (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), George Mason University professor James P. Pfiffner wrote:
Ronald Reagan was the second presidential candidate [after Carter] to begin to plan in a significant way for a possible takeover of the government before his nomination by his party. In November 1979, Edwin Meese asked Pendleton James to put together a plan for a personnel operation to prepare for a possible Reagan victory. In April 1980, he was asked to implement the plan, and he began operations near Washington. The leaks that had plagued the early Carter efforts did not occur, and the personnel operation was clearly subordinate to Meese, who was in charge of the transition from beginning to end and who also played a major role in the campaign.
An April 3 Congressional Research Service report prepared for Congress stated of the "Carter-Reagan Transition":
As early as April 1980, Ronald Reagan began planning for a possible presidential transition when he met with a group of defense and foreign policy advisers before the Republican convention. The advisers were asked to prepare specific policy and budget recommendations for use in the first months of a Reagan Administration to enable him to begin work immediately after the inauguration. Coordinated by William Graham, an engineer with a California defense consulting firm, the experts included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former President Ford, former White House chief of staff Alexander Haig, Senators John Tower and Richard Stone, Governor Bill Clements, former Cabinet member Casper Weinberger, and former Ambassador Anne Armstrong.
Following the Republican convention in July 1980, nearly 300 advisers were asked by Mr. Reagan to serve on 23 task forces to prepare reports due before Inauguration Day on economic and domestic issues.
So Dave Brady asked us eight basic questions. And while we will eventually get around to responding in one way or another to all eight of those questions. The first question, obviously, is the most important, what are the major obstacles to a successful transition? And I think you can reduce it all to one principle obstacle, and that is time as has been mentioned here. Jack has mentioned it and Marty has mentioned it too. And in the grand sphere of the ideological tradition of the People's Republic of China which has, I think today the campaign of the three requires, I'm going to speak today about the two musts, the ten do's and the one don't.
Of course, the first one is again, obvious, prepare early. I can remember a conversation with pre-candidate Ronald Reagan in 1979 on an airplane ride from Houston to Los Angeles after a fundraiser discussing -- he was writing his announcement speech and discussing personnel. At that point he already reminded me in that discussion that we had a team leader and that was Ed Meese who by November 1979 had long since started the process of the preparations of transition and deployed our former colleagues in the Nixon Administration and his friend Pen James to be looking into personnel aspects while the policy aspects were under development. So I think that from that standpoint that was probably the earliest practical application of the principle of being prepared that I know of.
In Presidential Transitions, Burke wrote:
Over the summer of 1980, the Reagan campaign was successful (unlike Carter four years earlier) in obtaining a favorable ruling from the Federal Elections Commission allowing it to raise private funds for the transition, as long as its operations were kept separate from the campaign. In September, the Presidential Transition Trust was formed and housed in the former headquarters of the Bush campaign in Alexandria, Virginia.
President Jimmy Carter
Jack Watson, former chief of staff to President Jimmy Carter, participated in a May 31, 2000, Heritage Foundation discussion about "Achieving a Successful Transition." A Heritage report based on that event stated that "Carter's transition process effectively began on May 11 of the election year ":
Jimmy Carter's transition process effectively began on May 11 of the election year, when senior campaign aide Jack Watson wrote a memo to Carter recommending that he establish a small, confidential group:
It was a memorandum that basically said, "Mr. President, unlike so many of the Presidents who have come into the White House, certainly in this century, you have had no federal government experience, save that in the United States Navy. You don't have a Washington network. You are the governor" -- or former governor at that time -- "of a southern state. You've not been a national figure before you entered the presidential primaries in New Hampshire and Iowa caucuses. I think it would be a good idea quietly to pull together, separate from the campaign, a small group of people who would begin in the lowest-profile way possible, quietest most controlled way possible, to start gathering certain information and facts, putting that information and those facts, those recommendations together so that when and if you are elected President in November, you can commence the transition with something of a head start."
Watson followed up with other memos outlining his thoughts. As soon as Carter received the nomination on June 10 [Carter officially accepted the nomination on July 15, 1976, at the Democratic National Convention], he instructed Watson to go ahead with his plan. By the time of the presidential election, Watson had a group working 14-hour days, seven days a week, essentially developing a checklist for Carter in the event he should win. Watson's final pre-election memo, sent to Carter on November 3, contained specific steps for the transition.
In a September 2000 paper, Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus Stephen Hess wrote: "During the summer [of 1976] Carter created a small transition office in Atlanta, headed by Jack Watson, that compiled 'a working list' of about 75 prospective candidates for high-level positions."
From the July 24 edition of MSNBC Live:
SHUSTER: Yeah, in fact, regarding this statement the McCain campaign issued, where it says, "John McCain has dedicated his life to serving, improving, and protecting America, Barack Obama spent an afternoon talking about it." It does seem that this gets -- this rubs right up against the idea that Americans don't necessarily like to look back at somebody's previous experience. For example with Bob Dole, they want to look forward. Is that a problem for John McCain? Julie?
JULIE MASON (Houston Chronicle White House correspondent): Yeah, it sure is. I mean, Obama's talking about change, he's talking about dynamic change, and -- and McCain's sort of resting on the laurels of the past. That's not really the right message. But I think he had a good point about the victory lap. I mean, I think that's really going to resonate with people.
SHUSTER: And if I can, the Obama campaign put out a note, or at least some confirmation today that in fact they have started to organize a transition team should Obama win. That does seem a little bit premature, right?
WALSH: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, historians and political scientists like this sort of thing -- that - they -- they don't like how sort of slipshod some transition processes are. But this is very early, and it plays into this notion that the Republicans are talking about, about Obama being too arrogant, that he -- sort of a sense of inevitability has set in there. And Americans don't like the idea that, you think, that -- that -- that a candidate thinks that he's got the thing won without really pushing at it and trying really hard, and so I think that that's a danger. Putting out this transition statement, I think, was not a smart thing to do.
SHUSTER: Ken Walsh, chief White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report; Julie Mason, White House correspondent for the Houston Chronicle. Again, thank you both.
From the July 24 edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto:
ASMAN: The McCain campaign criticizing Barack Obama today for a report he's already planning his presidential transition, issuing this statement. Quote, this is McCain speaking now: "Before they've even crossed the 50-yard line, the Obama campaign is already dancing in the end zone with a new White House transition team. The American people are more concerned with Barack Obama's poor judgment and readiness to lead than his inaugural ball."
Now, if Obama is planning his transition right now, could this be seen as an arrogant move? Obama supporter Marc Lamont Hill is with us now. Marc, great to see you. Thanks for joining us.
HILL: Always a pleasure.
ASMAN: So let me put up a picture of one of my favorite newspapers, by the way, The New York Sun. Yesterday in the cover of The New York Sun, there was a picture of Barack Obama with a couple of other senators on his Mideast trip. And you see the other senators holding their -- their coats sort of awkwardly in their hand, but there is Obama with a coat behind his -- his back, his hand in his pocket. This is clearly the most comfortable presidential candidate I have ever seen. This guy is so comfortable in that role, but when does it become a swagger and something that turns voters off?
HILL: Well, I think there are moments where you can overstep your bounds, to be sure. I think the moment where they had the presidential seal with his name on top of it.
ASMAN: That would be one of those moments, yes, absolutely.
HILL: That's over -- that's over -- that's over the top. But I don't think this is over the top. I think that planning your transition is a very smart thing to do. And if you listen to the Obama campaign, what they've said is, not only are we doing this but we encourage Senator McCain to do the exact same thing.
ASMAN: Yeah, I know, you can say that, but how many other presidential candidates have actually done that this early in the campaign?
HILL: Well, when you run based on change, you can make the argument that just because we haven't done it before, doesn't mean we shouldn't do it now.
ASMAN: OK, but Mark, you -- you answered -- within that answer, you've answered my question. It's never been done before. Why now?
HILL: No, I'm not -- I'm not. Dave, I'm not convinced that it's never been done before. I think because there's such a media -- there's been so much media attention based on --
ASMAN: Well, I can't think of an example and you can't think of an example.
HILL: Well, well, I mean --
ASMAN: That's two out of two people.
HILL: Well, no, no, but my point is I don't think this information always leaks. I think part of the point here is because there's an expectation that he is presumptuous and arrogant, it becomes more of a media story. Many candidates, in fact, I -- I would -- I would argue, do begin to think about transitions just like many people before they win a primary begin thinking about their running mate. It could be seen as presumptuous, but everybody does it.
ASMAN: People think about it, but again, it's -- it's attitude. Again, part of the problem with Obama is experience. He doesn't have the experience a lot of people are worried about that and -- and background, but the experience issue is not helped if -- if he is seen to be swaggering.
HILL: But it's -- but it's a tightrope. Because, you know, people say why is he going around the world giving speeches in Germany rather than being here with the American people.
ASMAN: Well, he wanted to do it at the Brandenburg Gate, which only presidents do, for goodness's sakes!
HILL: No, no, but -- but the very same people say that he doesn't have the foreign policy experience and that foreign leaders won't respect him. So --
ASMAN: Yeah, but speaking at the Brandenburg Gate is not going to give you foreign policy experience.
HILL: No it's not.
ASMAN: It gives him a fat head.
HILL: I -- I would agree that's more of a photo op than it is a -- a legitimate campaign move. Again, I was critical of that move just like I was about the seal. But the decision to make a transition team, I disagree.
HILL: I think that is absolutely significant. I think -- I encourage John McCain
ASMAN: Mark Lamont Hill.
ASMAN: -- to do the same thing and he's not going to win.
ASMAN: Always a pleasure to see you, Marc, thanks very much. America's Election Headquarters, now.
* Media Matters did not examine the transition plans of George H.W. Bush, because, unlike the other presidents examined, he came from the outgoing administration.