After nearly 18 months of campaigning, President-elect Donald Trump has a little more than 60 days to prepare to take the helm of one of the largest entities in the world: the US government. Considering the scale and complexity of the task, every hour counts.
Transition preparations have been underway for months. But now the work has to shift to a higher gear. It’s a daunting task, but Trump has the luxury of learning from those who have gone before.
As has been reported, there already have been significant changes in the transition leadership team. This is not unusual. In past presidential transitions, there also was a handover from those doing the planning before the election to those in the President-elect’s leadership team.
We studied the transitions of Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama to see how they used this critical period. Our research points to four areas where action now can pave the way for more effective governance after the inauguration.
Specifically, President-elect Trump and his transition team should concentrate their efforts on the following four areas: creating and refining the new administration’s policy agenda; picking a leadership team to help execute the agenda; strengthening Trump’s relationship with the media and Congress, and recovering from the exhausting campaign.
Setting policy priorities
The first thing the President-elect needs to do is determine policy objectives for the next four years, with the understanding that not everything can be accomplished.
There are two approaches to this: narrow and deep or shallow and wide.
While each approach has its pros and cons, the transition team must understand clearly which approach the President-elect wishes to follow.
In the case of President-elect Trump, the process of refining the policy agenda began before the election. Now, as transition team members fan out across the government and learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of each agency, they can help set priorities based on a realistic assessment of which campaign promises can be fulfilled and how much political capital it will take to fulfill them.
Choosing a leadership team
Even as the agenda is being refined, President-elect Trump must choose his leadership and management team.
His goal should be to submit at least 100 nominations to Congress by Inauguration Week and to win confirmation of as many as 500 appointees—of the more than 1,100 requiring Senate confirmation— by August, before Congress enters its summer recess.
Getting the right people in place, however, is infinitely more important than the numbers.
First, the new administration needs a clear understanding of what’s required for each position. While this may seem evident to a business leader, each new administration essentially starts anew. Various positions require different skill sets — leadership experience for a Cabinet secretary; management experience for a deputy secretary; topic expertise for key policy positions.
To determine the type of leadership each Cabinet department and government agency needs, the new administration should determine how well the organization is now performing. If an agency is struggling and needs a major reset — Trump should appoint a secretary with the experience to lead a major change-management effort.
Although Cabinet secretaries typically are confirmed quickly, it often takes 60 to 90 days to get other senior appointees confirmed. To speed this up, we would suggest Trump send slates of top nominees — a department or agency’s entire leadership team, submitted as a group — to the Senate for confirmation, rather than sending the nominations piecemeal. This way, the nucleus of the President’s leadership team can be established all at once.
Working with Congress and the media
The campaign is over. Now it’s time for the President-elect to recalibrate and create a rhythm, tone and team for engaging with the media and Congress.
The ways to successfully do this vary as much as the personalities of our presidents. President Reagan disclosed his choices for top government positions via news releases. President Obama, by contrast, held news conferences to announce nominees. Obama also preferred to maintain a high public profile, but chose to use weekly Web addresses for this purpose, rather than formal press conferences. President Bush’s transition activities were presented primarily through photo ops, often with family members.
A new administration also needs to build bridges to Congress, so using the honeymoon phase of the transition to establish relationships with congressional leaders should be a priority. The transition provides a unique time for a President-elect to take the high road. The decision to put Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a Washington veteran and former member of Congress, in charge of the transition could help.
Some presidents go the extra mile to establish a healthy working relationship with Capitol Hill. President Reagan invited all congressional newcomers to the White House for dinner. Others focus solely on the leadership. Either way, it’s important to remember that the transition doesn’t end on Inauguration Day. The work of building bridges needs to continue.
Taking a break
Finally, the President-elect should use the transition period to take a well-needed rest after the grueling campaign. The pressures and obligations of the Oval Office will be his soon enough.
All four presidents whose transitions we studied spent about one-third of their periods privately, away from public duties. Trump recently said on “60 Minutes” that he doesn’t intend to take any long vacations. Nevertheless, he needs to find the time for rest, to ready himself for the demands of his new job.
The 73-day transition period offers a critical opportunity for Trump to clarify his policy agenda, build a strong team, and establish a solid working relationship with Congress and the media. If he also uses the time to recharge his battery the chances of a successful transition to the presidency will be markedly enhanced.