What you need to know about presidential transitions


A presidential transition is a massive event that marks the start of a new administration, and with it, new possibilities.. Moving a new occupant into the Oval Office may be the most visible aspect of the transition, but it’s actually the simplest. The full transition involves filling thousands of government positions, preparing an entirely new budget, and more. 

Planning the presidential transition

At one time, candidates didn’t openly start planning a transition until they’d won the election. But as governing grows more complex, it’s become necessary to start much earlier, sometimes even before the nomination is final.

While the candidate is still campaigning, leaders of the transition team are working in the background. Their job includes:

  • Collecting potential names for Cabinet members
  • Vetting information that’s publicly available about those candidates
  • Creating a list of urgent phone calls, memos, and other communications to handle immediately

The winning candidate will need to propose a budget to Congress shortly after the inauguration.   A budget that will fund their policies and enable them to fulfill promises made during the campaign. Work on that budget has to begin well before the election.

How large is the team, and how complex is the plan? Mitt Romney’s transition team in 2012 was composed of more than 400 staffers, organized into groups based on the structures of federal agencies. The plan they were creating for a Romney transition would have covered a 200-day period, from the election into the early days of the administration itself.

The Cabinet

The choices a president-elect makes to fill out their Cabinet can reveal a lot about the new administration’s approaches. The Cabinet will be the president’s closest advisers and will influence the administration’s approach to everything from foreign policy to education and economics. 

These are the Cabinet positions:

  • Vice President
  • Secretary of Agriculture
  • Secretary of Commerce
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Secretary of Education
  • Secretary of Energy
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • Secretary of Homeland Security
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • Secretary of Interior
  • Secretary of Labor
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of Transportation
  • Secretary of Treasury
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  • Attorney General

High-ranking career officials are usually kept in place during the transition, so experienced leaders are available to respond to threats and keep agency business moving forward. Newly appointed Cabinet members will plan and role-play a variety of emergencies, along with the president-elect, to prepare for their new responsibilities.

Presidential powers

The outgoing president remains in office, and officially retains all powers of the office, until Inauguration Day.

However, the president who is leaving office is called a “lame duck” because their ability to get business done is hampered during this period. It’s more difficult for an outgoing president to rally the support of Congress, the public, and their party.

The president-elect has no official powers until Inauguration Day. Their actions are limited to preparing their team, policies, documents, and budget during this time.

Preparation and cooperation

Keeping the country running smoothly while the entire government changes hands is a tricky business. If it’s not handled well, the American people and government structures could be very vulnerable during this time. A well-prepared incoming team and careful cooperation between the two administrations are the keys to keeping the nation safe and minimizing the impact on the economy during a presidential transition.