How to keep your head during a U.S. presidential transition

How to keep your head during a U.S. presidential transition

Transitions from one administration to the next are frequently exciting, sometimes entertaining and always important — especially when there is a change of political party involved.

Transitions capture anxiety from departing leaders and their supporters over the lasting impact of their policies and legacies as well as anticipation from expectant office holders eager to gain coveted positions and implement their agendas. Most incumbent administrations vacate with reduced energy and focus, while many incoming transition teams often overestimate the electoral mandate they obtained from the recent election.

Faced with an especially contentious 2016 election, what are some important barometers for evaluating the current transition from an Obama to a Trump administration? Four indicators are especially useful to watch:

  • Ideology vs. competence. Every new administration is fired up by its victorious campaigners eager to implement their vision of the good and just society, and many of them will be selected for important positions. Such intensely motivated people, however, frequently do not possess the skills, relationships and temperament required for administering large, complex organizations and, across the history of presidential administrations, they often depart in the first half of a president’s term. President Ronald Reagan, for example, appointed highly ideological cabinet level officials to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior. Plagued by incompetence and scandal, these officials departed or their agendas were re-focused within two years.

  • Rollback vs. reform. During the campaign, President-elect Trump and other surrogates vigorously stated the case for the repeal of Obamacare, climate change agreements and regulations, and financial reform. The new president will possess significant executive authority to make adjustments in these programs, but he will need the approval of courts and the sanction of Congress to abolish or significantly revamp or repeal them. While the acrimonious debate over these and other government initiatives was conducted during the campaign, major voices in society — from the business community to state and local officials — have already accommodated to major parts of them even while supporting targeted reforms.

  • Unilateralism vs. collaboration. The United States remains the dominant military power in a world where many of the principal problems are not solvable by military force. Issues as diverse as large-scale population migration, Brexit and the cohesion of the European Union, economic competition with China and other nations, and water scarcity in strategically important regions are all in the top tier of the national security agenda alongside terrorism, Syria and relations with Russia. Unilateralism — in military or economic form — in a world with no one really capable of being in charge anymore will lead to exposure and risk, whereas leadership consists of knowing how to incentivize, cajole and sometimes force people to collaborate in solving a problem.

  • Policy vs. markets. Significant political opportunities are emerging to enact legislation to rebuild large parts of America’s infrastructure and reform the tax code. Other issues, such as immigration reform, modifying trade agreements, deficit reduction, or changing regulatory frameworks, are more politically challenging. Not only is a different coalition required to advance each issue, each coalition frequently exposes fault lines within a new administration’s party or its allies on whether to rely primarily on policy instruments or market forces to achieve desired outcomes. Many CEOs, for example, are professed free traders in the movement of ideas, goods and people, but they support entitlement reform and favor some form of limits on carbon emissions either through regulation or a tax. Observing how the Trump administration threads the needle between policy or market solutions, or a hybrid approach, will be one of the most consequential parlor games in the early phases of its term.

In sorting out and reconciling these dichotomous choices, the ability to set priorities is critical. Will the new administration develop a very focused agenda and mobilize its political capital to successfully persuade Congress to enact its proposals (the early-Reagan approach on economic and security issues), or will its appointments and attention span languish with the ticking of the clock (the first-term Clinton result)? Will the issues that matter be addressed (the economy, national security, climate change) and can the new president achieve the appropriate balance between unifying the country and reassuring his supporters?

Whatever the outcome, we would be well advised to remember the words of the slave who whispered into the Roman charioteer’s ear: Sic transit gloria mundi — all glory is fleeting.

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