The Keys to a Successful Presidency

AMERICANS HAVE A GREAT STAKE in the transition of power from one President to the next. Even those who did not vote for the winning candidate should want the newly elected President of the United States to succeed in general. When the White House operates smoothly and the President is seen as a success, every American benefits. When the White House is in chaos and the President fails, they suffer.

Examples abound of Presidents who were unable to “hit the ground running” because of mistakes they made during the transition period. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, for example, made early decisions to give their Cabinet secretaries primary authority over appointments to key policymaking posts within their departments. In practice, this decision meant their administrations similarly were unable to speak with a single voice in key policy areas. Confusion and even conflict resulted.

Bill Clinton declared early that he wanted his Cabinet to “look like America” and a woman to serve as Attorney General. These decisions led to speedy but sloppy, screening of the potential candidates and resulted in a series of rapid-fire embarrassments. The misguided effort known as “Nannygate” was not President Clinton’s only early problem. One week after his election, he unexpectedly provoked controversy with a surprise promise to lift the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military. Combined with the abrupt dismissal of veteran personnel from the White House Travel Office, the “growing pains” of the early months of the Clinton Administration produced months of backpedaling and, in the case of Travelgate, years of investigation, criticism, court battles, and conflict. For a while it seemed as though the new Chief Executive from Hope, Arkansas would never recover.

Ronald Reagan, by comparison, strode into office insouciant and self-confident because he had a vision and clear plans for his Administration. Thanks to advance planning with a handful of his key advisers, Reagan entered the White House knowing exactly how his team would fill the key posts, how they would instruct their principal appointees, which positions would be filled and in what order, and which policies his Administration would push first. By Inauguration Day on January 20, Reagan was ready. Just as important, to the American people and the media he appeared ready. Analysts of all political persuasions attribute the successes he enjoyed in the opening months of his presidency to these early steps, and they often cite his transition as a model for future Presidents to follow.

Traditionally, the peaceful transfer of power from one President to another after an election is a time of great expectation. The inauguration of the President of the United States, and especially the inauguration of a new President, with all its pageantry and solemnity has become a national ritual. President John F. Kennedy rightly called it a “celebration of freedom.” To those still bereft of the blessings of democracy in other parts of the world, the inauguration of the American President, in public view and before his supporters and former opponents, continues to demonstrate the greatness of America.

The 70 days between the election and the swearing-in can be heady times for the President-elect and his team. They can also be chaotic. After a long and hard-fought campaign, veterans of the effort experience both the euphoria and the exhaustion that accompany victory. Often they display an understandable hubris, believing perhaps that nothing that awaits them can be as difficult or as arduous as what they have already achieved. Historians and journalists believe this arrogance was one of the underlying causes of Kennedy’s miscalculation in the Bay of Pigs incident and prompted Clinton’s ill-conceived economic stimulus package and health care proposal.

The days and weeks immediately after the long campaign – when people are tired, stressed, ecstatic, and more than a bit confused about what lies ahead – are not the best time for a President-elect and his closest advisers to make decisions that will affect the country and world for years to come. Yet, in an atmosphere conducive to error, they must make many such decisions and in quick succession. Presidents who either delay decisions on critical matters or act in haste will be sowing the seeds of future frustration.

Richard Nixon, for instance, who was unsure in the final weeks of his campaign that he would be elected, had a slow and awkward start to his Administration. Jimmy Carter planned for the transition, but much of his planning was done in a vacuum only to be unearthed after the election, when the campaign staff – upset that they had not be consulted – began to focus on the transition.

Sometimes Presidents handicap themselves by placing a premium on fulfilling the promises of government “reform” they made during the heat of the campaign. Clinton, for example, pledged to reduce the size of the White House staff. Mindful that the press would be keeping count, members of his team often made cuts they later regretted.

To help the next American President prepare for a successful transition, The Heritage Foundation brought together alumni and observers of nine presidential administrations – spanning a period of nearly 50 years – for a series of discussions about what went right and what went wrong during transition periods and administrations past. Although they sometimes disagreed in what to emphasize, most agreed on substance and the fundamentals of what a President should do.

Gleaning from the collective experience of those who have walked the Pennsylvania Avenue walk, eight keys to a successful presidency were identified which address the different types of questions a new President must face and the steps he should take to answer them effectively.

  1. Achieving a Successful Transition: What needs to be done? When, where, and by whom should each step be implemented?
  2. Running the White House: How should the White House be organized? What system can be put in place to efficiently handle the steady flow of people and paper? Who should have access to what? Who should have what authority?
  3. Staffing a New Administration: How do you find the best people for the key positions? For that matter, how do you determine what the “best” is? What priorities should be set by filling the key posts? What management system will assure the President that the administration will further his own goals?
  4. Turning the President’s Agenda into Administration Policy: How will the White House interface with Cabinet departments and independent agencies? Where should policy be made?
  5. Enacting a National Security Agenda: What vision does the President have for America’s role in the world? What criteria should be used to select a National Security Adviser? How should the President, the National Security Adviser, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense interact?
  6. Working with Congress to Enact an Agenda: How can the President ensure a desired program will become law? How do you facilitate smooth inter-branch relations?
  7. Managing the Largest Corporation in the World: What are the President’s primary managerial duties? How can the President ensure that his directives flow through the entire federal bureaucracy?
  8. Building Public Support for the President’s Agenda: How is a message developed, transmitted, and used to reinforce support among principal actors?

History shows that Americans benefit when presidential transitions run smoothly. When a new President is able to articulate clearly his vision for America; when the White House and Congress establish a good working relationship, even if they disagree on legislative and policy details; when the right people are selected for the right administration jobs; and when the President’s team understand his priorities and has a plan for doing “first things first,” then every American profits.

Though some consider transition planning to be a modern phenomenon, Presidents have engaged in it since the days of George Washington. Rather than a sign of overconfidence or bravado, transition teams are a necessary management tool that spell the difference between success and failure in the first days of the new administration. Yet, among modern Presidents, only Ronald Reagan had the foresight to begin planning early. Many others, in retrospect, undoubtedly wish they had.


Dr. Felzenberg is a Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation where he directs the Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership 2000 Project. This article is excerpted from The Keys to a Successful Presidency, which he edited.