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We lead the world in a peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. Where we’re not so good is in the details of actually handing that power over to a new team.
Typically, the last of the 3,000 appointees who constitute the old president’s administration are out the door the morning of January 20 and, after the new president is sworn in at noon, the members of the new administration, those of them who have been confirmed or whose appointments have cleared, come flocking in.
The system does not provide any overlap and the transitions are rarely seamless. The newcomers are anxious to get their hands on the levers of power and the outgoing appointees are preoccupied with finding new jobs, cleaning out their offices and, often, relocating their families. And there are the natural tensions left over from the opposing campaigns.
The transition is the worst at the White House, where virtually everybody leaves when administrations change. Unlike many countries we don’t have a permanent secretariat for the executive office. The incoming staff finds unplugged phones and empty file cabinets. In 2001, George Bush’s people complained Bill Clinton’s aides had trashed their offices. The charges turned out to be exaggerated but they exemplified the tension of the change and there was the problem of the missing “W” keys from the computers.
This transition promises to be different thanks to President Bush. He called together his Cabinet and staff in the Rose Garden to tell them that a smooth transition would be a priority for the remainder of his presidency. And they are to be gracious about the change. “I know that you will conduct yourself with the decency and professionalism you have shown throughout my time in office.”
He had earlier signed an executive order creating a transitional coordinating council of top officials from the major agencies and the security and intelligence communities. And he has instructed the agencies to provide office space, policy briefings and security clearances to President-elect Obama’s transition staff.
The transition is especially critical at Treasury where the financial markets are looking for consistency and predictability in the government’s response to the credit crisis.
All of this preparation for their replacements speaks well of Bush and his people. And he laid down a further order — no pranks during the transition.