So, What Happens in a Presidential Transition, Anyway?

Joe Biden address the nation as ballots are still being counted across the nation.

By Elle Meyers

November 24, 2020

The Biden team has to hire thousands of people and figure out how they’ll accomplish what they promised on the campaign trail.

It took longer than normal, but on Monday President-elect Joe Biden and his team finally started the official transition process. Taking over the entire executive branch is a massive job, and President Donald Trump delayed the Biden team from fully starting for weeks.

But on Monday, after Michigan certified that its 16 Electoral College votes would be going for Biden, the head of the Government Services Administration finally sent a letter to Biden saying he is the “apparent winner” of the election. With that letter come access to $6.3 million from the government to fun the transition process, office space, technology, access to government email, and, of course, presidential security briefings.

So what happens now? A lot of what the Biden transition team has already been up to: staffing the White House, the Executive Office of the President, and the leadership staff at federal agencies. These are the people who work behind the scenes to keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly. 

A new White House has to appoint 4,000 people to different positions within the government, and over a thousand of those require confirmation from the Senate, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. They also have to get up to speed on what has been happening at over 100 federal agencies, and then training leadership teams for each one.

In addition to hiring and training a massive workforce, presidents use the transition period to plan what policies they’ll pursue at the start of their administration. They will often start building a policy platform and planning executive actions that could build on–or undo–executive actions of previous administrations. And they might create a 100-day plan to achieve goals they outlined on the campaign trail, in addition to developing an effective strategy for communicating with the public. 

Why does all of this matter? The transition process isn’t just complicated, it’s critically important. A disruption in governance is dangerous because it can place the country at risk.

“It’s not just national security. It’s homeland security,” Chris Lu said in an interview with NPR. Lu led the Obama transition in 2008. He went on to explain that for an foreign adversary, any disruption in power in the United States can look like an opportunity. 

“We know that transitions can be very tenuous times where if you’re a foreign adversary, you might want to exploit that,” Lu said. “So it’s important to have cooperation on these national security issues well before [Inauguration Day.]”

Other experts have cited additional concerns that delaying the transition of power would have adverse effects not just on national security, but also the economy and the pandemic response. 

“The next president has to be ready to govern on day one. And if there isn’t an adequate transition, that puts national security at risk, that puts American lives at risk — particularly given that the next president is going to have to wrestle with a global pandemic. And it just generally is terrible for government operations,” said Tim Lau in a discussion with the Brennan Center For Justice.

Despite the delays, Biden has worked to fill his cabinet and prepare for his term in office. So far he has picked officials with years of experience and said that one of his priorities is building a diverse cabinet that will “look like America.” 

“The American people are eager for our Administration to get to work, and [our] appointees will help advance our agenda and ensure every American has a fair shot,” Biden said in a statement. “In a Biden administration, we will have an open door to the Hill and this team will make sure their views are always represented in the White House.”


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