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Presidential Transition Begins Far Before Election Day

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Depending on tomorrow's election result, Washington will go into one of two different gears: the continuation of Barack Obama's presidency or the transition to Mitt Romney's. In recent years, the transition has placed conflicting pressures on a candidate. First, be prepared to govern by late January. Second, don't be seen to be preparing to govern until the votes are actually counted. Robert?

SIEGEL: That's right, Melissa. There's an unflattering figure of speech for the candidate who counts his political chickens too soon. I found an early use of it in February 1940. The wife of Senator Robert Taft, the man they called Mr. Republican, was reported to be very confident that her husband would win the White House that year. The Saint Petersburg, Florida, Evening Independent reported that Martha Taft was sure of it, but the paper said she refuses to say whether she will change the drawing room drapes...

BLOCK: Aha.

SIEGEL: ...in the White House. Remember that?

BLOCK: The all-important drapes.

SIEGEL: As it turned out, Taft was neither elected nor even nominated by his party, but ever since, measuring the drapes, Melissa, has been an image of a candidate's presumption. You may recall during the 2008 campaign, John McCain went after Barack Obama in that vein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We're a few points down. The national media has written us off.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Booing)

MCCAIN: Just the other day, Senator Obama's campaign announced that he's choosing his Cabinet. He's measuring the drapes.

SIEGEL: In fact, by that time, both the Obama campaign and the McCain campaign had had multiple meetings with the General Services Administration about the transition. The GSA is the government agency in charge of things like buildings, computers, phones, desks, chairs. Whichever man won, he would need a transition headquarters. The GSA had a building assigned to the task, but each campaign had its own very specific ideas about how that headquarters should be designed.

In 2008, Gail Lovelace was the director of Presidential Transition for the GSA. Her team, she says, spent a year getting ready for the night of November 4th.

GAIL LOVELACE: On election night, a group of me and my staff sat in transition headquarters with, if you can imagine, a room with a bunch of TVs up on the wall. We had every station imaginable running to see what they said the outcome of the election would be. All of a sudden, if I remember correctly, right around 11 o'clock, one TV - and I wish I remember which station was first - put Barack Obama up as the president-elect at that point in time.

SIEGEL: And then you knew what you had to do.

LOVELACE: My team went into immediate action. We had two different plans. We had a McCain plan, and we had an Obama plan. We put the McCain plan aside, took the Obama plan and went into immediate action.

SIEGEL: And what was the deadline you were working toward?

LOVELACE: Oh, we were ready for them to come in at 7 o'clock in the morning.

SIEGEL: Did you make it?

LOVELACE: Of course, we did. When you think about it, the time between election and the inaugural is only about 70-some days, and so that's really not a lot of time. They shouldn't have to worry about phones and BlackBerrys and pens and paper and Xerox paper. They shouldn't have to worry about those kinds of logistics. That was our goal.

SIEGEL: I'll invoke the greatest cliché of transitions in American political history. Did somebody actually measure the drapes with the transition office?

(LAUGHTER)

LOVELACE: I don't remember any. I don't think we had any drapes, and I don't remember anybody measuring any drapes.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Well, drapes or no drapes, the morning after election night 2008, I drove to work past this nondescript office building on 6th Street, Northwest, in Washington, and it was suddenly surrounded with concrete barriers, guarded by Secret Service and generally causing a traffic jam where none had existed before. It was a Democratic traffic jam; a different result the night before and it would have been a Republican traffic jam.

This year, there's a new law in effect that governs transition planning. Taxpayers started paying for the Romney transition headquarters right after he was nominated.

And here's where it is. On C Street, Southwest, in Washington. Since early September, Mitt Romney's transition team, headed up by Mike Leavitt, former HHS secretary and governor of Utah, has been working out of this building. Chief among the things he and his staff are likely to be doing is picking a White House staff. Martha Kumar, Towson University professor of political science, who studies transitions, says that is key.

MARTHA KUMAR: Before you can get to deciding who you want in your Cabinet, you have to decide what the rules are going to be. Are you going to allow lobbyists, for example, in your Cabinet? And if you aren't, what kinds of ethics guidelines are you going to have? How are you going to make decisions? What bases do you need to touch? All of that has to be set up before you make Cabinet selections, and the only way you can do that is by establishing your central White House staff.

SIEGEL: Who, unlike Cabinet secretaries, don't have to be confirmed by the Senate. Max Stier was instrumental in moving the presidential transition process up and bringing it out of the shadows. He's president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. What's his measure of a successful transition?

MAX STIER: A clear measure is, do you have your leadership team in place in real time? And I would say that real time is ensuring that in essence, your top, you know, four to 500 people are in place by the August recess. That's never happened before or anything close to it.

SIEGEL: The August recess, that's half a year of still being in transition.

STIER: The truth is that most administrations, all administrations have had significant holes in their leadership team well past a year in their tenure. And when you consider that the front end is when you have the best opportunity to move things forward that so much time is lost on the back end when you're either preparing for re-election or leaving, you have a very, very narrow window of getting stuff done. You have to make sure your people get in faster and that they're ready to go if you expect to be successful as a president.

SIEGEL: So we have the Romney transition office already working obviously with a very small staff compared to what it would be if he actually won the election.

STIER: Yes.

SIEGEL: If he lost the election, do they all pack it in that week and go home, or is there an enduring function of the transition for a few days? Well, what happens?

STIER: My hope is that we learn from what they did so that the next people can do even better. But at the end of the day, correct, their function disappears, not all that different than the campaign function.

SIEGEL: Both Max Stier and Martha Kumar say another aspect of the last transition was very successful. Incoming and outgoing homeland security and national security officials had met so often and so cooperatively that they coped together, very coolly, with a really scary threat on Inauguration Day, a planned attack by a Somali terrorist group, an attack that never materialized.

Tomorrow, we'll hear who might be likely Cabinet picks in either a second Obama administration or a Romney White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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