How executive powers are transferred after a presidential election

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January 13, 2021
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration // Wikimedia Commons

How executive powers are transferred after a presidential election

As all Americans know, new U.S. presidents don't head to the White House overnight after declaring victory. Instead, there's an important transition process that spans the period between the early months of an election year and the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 of the following year.

While many think of the transition period as a time set from November to January, there are many important decisions that a potential president-elect must make well before the election day. These include assembling a key transition team and forming strategic relationships with politicians and other important figures in the federal government. Once the General Services Administration (GSA) releases a letter of ascertainment, the incoming president officially has access to transition funds and other resources.

These days, a president-elect's transition team regularly updates the press, public, and Congress members about key appointments and policy initiatives during the transition process. However, for most of history, the proceedings were not this public and transparent—this only changed when the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010 was passed a decade ago and required the GSA to provide more well-documented support to each president-elect's transition teams.

However, the transition process has been quite different for the current president-elect, Joe Biden, whose win wasn't officially acknowledged by the GSA until Nov. 23, 2020 (16 days after he was declared the winner). This is because President Donald Trump has largely failed to accept his loss and has yet to officially concede to Biden.

To help you understand how exactly a president-elect typically prepares to enter the White House, Stacker compiled a list of 16 key steps taken to transfer executive power from one president to the next. From naming a transition chair to making thousands of political appointments, read on to find out how these powers are transferred in the aftermath of a U.S. political election.

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Naming a transition chair

Determining a transition chair (or chairs) is one of the first big decisions presidential candidates make in coordinating a potential transition, and these individuals are generally identified during the spring of an election year. People in this position are responsible for overseeing the entire transition process and coordinating key transition goals with the candidate.

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Forming the key transition team staff

The process of assembling the staff of a president-elect's key transition team also begins before election day to find out which employees need to be vetted, which congressional personnel can work during the transitionary period, and if the new staff members will need special security clearances. However, only the foremost transition period leaders need special Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) security clearance and background checks before starting their roles. Common roles that need to be filled include communications manager, legislative affairs leader, and legal counsel.

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Setting key goals for the transition

These goals can encompass many things, from setting time targets and goals for building a policy platform based on campaign promises to setting goals for when to fill new political appointments. These can range from goals that need to be met immediately after the election to goals that should be met within the president's first 100 to 200 days in office.

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Building the potential president-elect’s policy platform

Every presidential candidate runs on a series of policy initiatives that they promise supporters they will implement once in office—from financial policies to federal defense policies. It's then up to a candidate's head of policy implementation to determine which of these campaign promises should be prioritized during the transition process to keep the new president's approval ratings high and enact these policies early on in the new administration.

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Establishing relationships with current government offices

Because the vast majority of political appointments under a new president require Senate approval, forming strategic alliances and partnerships with politicians, stakeholders, and foreign leaders is essential. With those ties in place, dealing with approving appointees, receiving new policy papers and queries, and handling other pressing matters can be accomplished in a calmer and more timely manner.

 

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The General Services Administration determines a president-elect

Once the GSA determines a new president-elect, they provide that person and their transition team with transition staff funding, office space, access to government services, and more. However, they must issue an official "ascertainment" letter verifying that the non-incumbent presidential nominee is the winner—which proved difficult in 2020 when President Trump refused to acknowledge that Democratic candidate Joe Biden had won the election.

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Staffing the White House and President's Executive Office

These roles are distinct from other political appointments since White House staffers don't require Senate confirmation before entering their roles. The White House chief of staff is generally one of the first roles filled after the election ends. They will oversee filling necessary White House positions during the transitionary period.

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Send agency review teams to inspect federal agencies

Before a new president is inaugurated, it's up to the incoming administration's transition team to visit over 100 federal agencies to assess their current operations and staffing needs. The team then goes about planning for how the incoming president will manage each agency during the new administration and which political roles need to be filled.

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Creating a federal budget plan

One of the first major policy documents that many new administrations release is the presidential budget, which details how a new administration will spend federal funds once in office. Due to the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, the president's budget for the upcoming fiscal year must be submitted by the first Monday in February.

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Managing the president-elect’s schedule

In the weeks between the November election and January inauguration, the president-elect faces a tight schedule filled with travel, intelligence briefings, policy agenda meetings, and more. As such, the transition team must devise a comprehensive schedule for the president-elect and other key transition team members.

 

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Developing communication strategies

The transition process received more attention after the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010 was passed. It required the GSA to provide more official support to the president-elect's transition teams. For that reason, it's vital that a communications strategy is determined for when the transition team will inform Congress, the press, and the public about key transitionary policy decisions and appointments. This also involves setting up the official White House social media accounts before Inauguration Day.

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Coordinate with the White House and the president-elect

When a non-incumbent candidate wins a presidential election, there's an expectation that the incumbent president will work with the president-elect to communicate and share classified resources effectively throughout the transition process. While President Trump initially refused to acknowledge Joe Biden's win, President Obama opened up the White House to Trump shortly after his 2016 win, saying, "I have instructed my team to follow the example that President Bush's team set eight years ago, and work as hard as we can to make sure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect."

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Drawing up a 100- to 200-day plan for executing campaign policies

A president-elect generally chooses to focus on highlighting and implementing legislation related to two or three key campaign issues in their first 100 to 200 days in office. To do so, a management agenda should be established, and further policy priorities should be fleshed out during the transition process so that they can be accomplished early and keep the new president's approval rating high. For instance, Biden promised to build back the Affordable Care Act, which he blamed the Trump administration for repeatedly attacking.

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Incumbent political appointees tender their resignation

Because new administrations typically appoint new nominees to fill major political positions, incumbent political appointees in these positions are expected to tender their resignation shortly after the election results are certified. For instance, during her presidential run in January 2020, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that she would ask for the resignations of every political appointee of President Trump by her first day in the White House.

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Fill political appointments

During a new administration, the head of presidential appointments will sometimes need to collect information on and name candidates for around 4,000 new political appointments under the latest administration. Around 1,200 of those roles require Senate confirmation.

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