There is plenty of alarm about Trump’s functional denial of his election loss. And many experts are raising serious concerns about what Biden’s team is missing out on — briefings, payroll, office space and more — as it waits for frivolous lawsuits to be dismissed and for Trump to come to terms with his stinging defeat.
When to panic. But while Trump’s denialism makes him a sore loser so far, it may not quite be time to hit the panic button about the transition. At least not yet — though you can keep the panic button nearby.
Georgia could complete its hand recount of votes Wednesday. If Georgia’s election certification deadline comes and goes (it’s Friday, November 20) and the Trump administration is still grasping at straws, that will be a clear indicator that this blockade could drag out.
If county and state certification deadlines in other key states start passing by with no indication that reality is setting in at the White House, start to worry.
Look to recent history. The rule of thumb I’ve read is that a president should have their White House staff in order by Thanksgiving. Here’s a Brookings review of recent presidential transitions.
Biden’s already announced his chief of staff, Ron Klain, and a series of other top staffers, including Jen O’Malley Dillon, his campaign manager, who will be deputy chief of staff. So perhaps Biden is on track there.
Top Cabinet officials usually take longer. The Senate has data on these going back to the Carter administration and only a handful of first-term Cabinet nominations were even announced in November. It’s usually into December and a good target is to have a core of Cabinet secretaries starting the formal background process by Christmas.
Richard Nixon announced his entire Cabinet in a live television event on December 11, 1968.
One important wrinkle: The Senate has to confirm Cabinet secretaries, and the runoff for two Senate seats in Georgia isn’t until January 5. The outcome there will determine whether Democrats can get to 50 votes, giving them a tiebreaker in Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
A full Cabinet won’t be in place for months. Biden can prioritize which secretaries to focus on first. We don’t yet know who will control the Senate and Sen. Mitch McConnell, supreme overlord of the Senate floor schedule, could, with help from other Republicans, make it more difficult for Biden to nominate certain secretaries — Susan Rice and Elizabeth Warren would both be potential Cabinet officials who could face difficult confirmations in a Republican-controlled Senate.
It’s also important to note that the government is much much much larger than a Cabinet and a White House staff. These hires cascade to other hires. There are thousands of positions to be filled in the government.
Watch for one failure. No matter what happens in Georgia, there’s a good chance at least one of Biden’s Cabinet picks will fail in some fashion. Trump had his labor nominee Andrew Puzder flame out early on. Barack Obama had Tom Daschle withdraw as health secretary. George W. Bush lost Linda Chavez, also for labor, and Bill Clinton had Zoe Baird. These dramas happen.
Nominations are taking longer than they have in recent years. The Partnership for Public Service charts data on nominations and determined that nominations during the Reagan administration — Cabinet-level and lower — took 56.4 days as opposed to 115 days during the Trump administration. That’s primarily due to a slow-down in processing sub-Cabinet nominations.
A CRS report on presidential transitions found first-year Cabinet appointments were relatively consistent between the Carter and Obama administrations, averaging between 77 and 86 days.
The president in that group who took the longest to announce Cabinet nominees was George W. Bush, who got a late start after the contested 2000 election, which wasn’t settled until December 13 of that year. But W. Bush also had the shortest median time between announcement and confirmation at 77 days, according to CRS.
But first-year nominations usually go much quicker, although with the nation divided and a nearly even Senate, this could be a year for even more slow work.
Delays clearly have consequences, as we’ve repeatedly stressed with regard to 9/11. The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition published a new study today that showed how the delay calling Florida for Bush in 2000 slowed his effort to get a full team in national security positions. The equivalent for Biden could be health positions.
One key difference is that in the 2000 election drama, nobody knew what the outcome would be until after the Supreme Court ruled. Now, everyone but Trump and a shrinking number of Republicans seems to understand it will be Biden who takes office in January.
Worst transitions in history
Secession during transition. I really enjoyed this CNN Opinion piece by Thomas Balcerski about transitions that harmed the country.
The one that seems to have done the most damage was James Buchanan’s effort to sabotage Abraham Lincoln by passing a measure to protect slavery — the Crittenden Compromise. When that faltered, states started to secede during the Buchanan-Lincoln transition.
Herbert Hoover’s effort to pre-empt the New Deal is also not great.
We’ve already written here about how the slow transition during the 2000 election was cited by the 9/11 commission as a contributing factor to the terror attacks.
How to retire. Separately, November 16, 1902, was the first day cartoonist Clifford Berryman featured a bear — what we’d come to know as the Teddy bear — in a cartoon about Teddy Roosevelt. I like this one I found on the National Archives website that Berryman published as Roosevelt was planning to leave office and go on a long African safari. Years later TR would be back in the arena, running for President and blowing up the GOP. Trump could do that, if he wanted, and run in 2024. What he can’t do is stay in the White House past January 20, 2021.