The Five-year Presidency
I don't remember turning off a light — not when I closed my office door in the West Wing for the last time, nor as I walked through the White House to the Oval Office a few minutes before Joe Biden's inauguration as the country's 46th president. Yet America's transition from one president to another resembles nothing so much as the flip of a switch: At noon on January 20th, it's instantaneous.
I walked into the Oval Office, where I had attended so many meetings over the past four years. President Donald Trump had left a few hours earlier to take his final trip on Air Force One, but I skipped the send-off at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. As the operational head of the Transition Coordinating Council, a body created by Congress to facilitate the switch from one administration to the next, I believed it was my duty to stay on site until 11:59 a.m. — the final minute of the Trump presidency.
Inside the Oval Office, workers scrambled to move chairs, couches, and paintings. President Trump's personal effects were gone. The portrait of Andrew Jackson had been replaced by that of Benjamin Franklin. Trump's yellow rug had been rolled up and removed, and for a moment I watched the installation of the dark blue rug chosen by his successor. Everything had to be ready for when President Biden arrived. It was like a scene out of a home-renovation show, but with a hard deadline.
The frantic sight reminded me that no organization in the world tries to function in this manner — instantaneously and with 100% turnover of a staff tasked with enormous responsibilities — except what may be the world's most important organization: the Executive Office of the President of the United States.
It's a process with very real consequences not only for how the federal government functions, but for how Americans view the institution. Managing a presidential administration is a Herculean task, and doing it well is vital for building and sustaining the public's trust in government. This is especially the case at the outset of a new president's term.
To improve presidents' effectiveness, we must reimagine their transition into office. Future presidents must approach the challenge differently — starting earlier, planning more effectively, and designing not just what policies they want to implement, but also how the White House should be organized and run. To that end, everyone from the candidates to their staff to voters should view the job of the government's chief executive not just as a constitutional four-year term, but as a five-year presidency — one that launches at least a year before the election.
THE EXECUTIVE OFFICE
The Executive Office of the President (EOP), which consists of all the president's staff, was created in 1939 after Franklin Roosevelt appointed a committee to consider options for reorganizing the executive branch. "The President needs help," the committee's report stated bluntly in 1937, recommending that the nation's chief executive be given more aides to help manage the sprawling offices and agencies established by the New Deal.
As the administrative state came to dominate government over the course of the 20th century, Roosevelt's successors expanded the EOP further. Yet the size of the EOP has not kept pace with the growth of government. Part of the reason for this trend is that the executive branch's complexity has put a ceiling on the White House team's efficiency. Presidential teams tend to operate like a construction crew continually renovating and expanding a house, but without an architect overseeing the project; they rarely operate as a fully cohesive unit. Instead, various offices cobble together the precedents of the past with the priorities of the present. This approach makes the task of governance more difficult than it should be.
Previous presidents adopted various technocratic initiatives to improve the executive branch's performance and restore public trust in the institution, from Bill Clinton's "Reinventing Government" in the 1990s to George W. Bush's "President's Management Agenda" in the 2000s. Their results have been mixed, largely because they focused on federal agencies — the arms and legs of government — rather than its head and heart: the White House itself.
Smart reforms could make a major difference in how the EOP functions. And yet, the problem has thus far received scant attention from experts in organizational management.
At the same time, those pursuing the presidency don't devote much time to thinking about how their administration will govern if they are elected to office. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that planning too soon for a term in the White House — encapsulated in the derogatory phrase "measuring the drapes" — is a sign of brazen overconfidence. The criticism implies that, rather than tending to the first step of winning an election, candidates distract themselves with dreams of inevitable victory.
Yet failing to prepare for the presidency is an even bigger blunder. After an election, victorious candidates have minimal time to build a White House staff consisting of several hundred individuals who oversee an expansive federal apparatus that employs about 4 million, serves a nation of 330 million, and shapes the future of the world.
Preparations for presidential management of the White House have improved over the years, supported by legislation that provides resources to candidates ahead of the election. However, the planning process has struggled to keep pace with the growth and increased complexity of White House operations.
The nature of the presidents we elect has also changed. No president in the last 50 years has come into office with the experience of managing anything as complicated as the EOP, let alone the enormous federal government. Presidential candidates were once chosen because of their skill in navigating internal political machinery — a good test of their ability to govern in a capital city that runs on relationships and bargaining. Now, the main criteria for selecting a president include media performance and rhetorical skill. These are important, but they are not sufficient for a successful presidency: The president must also be a deft organizational manager.
For any president to succeed, preparations need to begin well before a potential victory. To wit, the first year of planning before a presidential term — what I refer to as "Year Zero" — should feature a non-partisan, managerial approach that consciously forms teams built to emphasize not just policy expertise, but effective leadership. A successful Year Zero will ensure that incoming presidents are significantly more effective in governance, and in doing so begin to rebuild voters' trust in American government.
Potential presidents should start to assemble a core Year Zero governance and leadership team about a year before the inauguration. This team would manage the advisors surrounding the candidate and eventually the president, ensuring that decision-making responsibility always remains solely with the chief executive.
The Year Zero team should comprise just a few people at first — ideally fewer than 10. Team members might bring distinctive expertise in relevant subject areas, such as foreign affairs or the economy, but their most essential skill will be general management as applied to politics and policy. While the candidate and his campaign team focus on winning the election, the Year Zero team can assume the separate yet parallel task of ensuring that the president is ready to govern as soon as he is sworn into office.
Forming the Year Zero team well before an election has several benefits. The first is that it helps guarantee that team members are committed to delivering for the president rather than for themselves. As White House deputy chief of staff, I saw staff members who believed their positions granted them an opportunity to push their own ideological agendas — a common occupational hazard in any administration. The people who work in the White House should see themselves not as the deciders of presidential policy, but as option generators and implementers.
In the frantic weeks following an election, the president-elect is more likely to appoint politically expedient allies — or worse, political opportunists seeking to implement their own agendas — than loyal advisors to staff the positions that make up the EOP. Members of the Year Zero team should be chosen well beforehand to keep the number of such allies and opportunists to a minimum.
Another advantage of putting a leadership team in place early is that it allows a potential president to assess individuals' performance and the team's compatibility before the administration faces the storm of governance. The Trump White House suffered from high turnover in its early months, much of which was driven by incompatible personalities that sometimes made life feel more like an episode of The Sopranos than The West Wing. While task conflict (or the contesting of ideas) is vital to a team's success, personality conflict undermines it.
President Biden, by contrast, had more success with an approach that reminded me of the one taken by Ed Whitacre, who became chairman and CEO of General Motors in 2009. Just a few months after the government had bailed out the firm in one of the most iconic corporate failures in American history, Whitacre set the ambitious goal of bringing the automotive manufacturer back to the public markets within a year.
His first action was, in the words of business writer Jim Collins, to "get the right people on the bus." To that end, Whitacre consciously picked a team that blended industry and company experts, including current CEO Mary Barra, with outsiders — including myself as CFO and vice chairman — who brought in new expertise. He established the mission, aspiration, and roles for the team. I was initially skeptical of the company's ability to achieve such an arduous task as quickly as Whitacre had proposed, but General Motors executed what was at the time the largest initial public offering in history in just 11 months.
When assembling his White House team, Biden, too, mixed old allies like long-time aide Ted Kaufman and former vice-presidential chief of staff Ron Klain with newer advisors like Yohannes Abraham and Jeff Zients. When I worked with these staff members in the weeks before the inauguration, they impressed me with both their skill and their loyalty to the incoming president.
Of course, potential presidents should expect some turnover to occur during and shortly after Year Zero. But it's far better to get most of the churn out of the way before the governing begins than to allow it to divert attention from the president's agenda during his first months in office.
Year Zero also offers an opportunity for potential presidents to build the institutional knowledge that incoming staff members will require to succeed. Even when the process runs smoothly, the transition between administrations is so sharp that incoming teams rarely know much about the basics of governing when they begin. While some officials may have served in the White House previously, the team will inevitably include many newcomers who have little experience in the public sector, let alone at the highest level of the executive branch. This leads to fundamental mistakes during a decisive time in the president's term.
Several months into his first year in office, Barack Obama attempted to address this deficiency when he met with Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Kennedy, and other prominent historians to learn how his predecessors had succeeded and failed in tackling major problems. This was an excellent idea, but it would have made even more sense to hold the meeting during Year Zero, enabling the insights and lessons generated by these conversations to be baked in to the first year of the administration.
About 10 months before the inauguration, the Year Zero team should designate an advisory board of not just historians, but also strategists, scientists, and former government officials to help build the knowledge base for designing a successful EOP. The Year Zero team should also study the best practices of previous administrations. This may involve interviewing White House veterans, perhaps even across partisan divisions. Much can also be learned from the wealth of written material that already exists, including memoirs of former presidents and White House staff, as well as publications on the mechanics of transitions more generally. Think tanks, too, can be tremendous sources of information on the basics of governing, especially when their products are based on the experiences of former White House personnel.
I contributed to this body of knowledge in 2012 when I joined Mitt Romney's transition team as executive director. Led by chairman and former Utah governor Mike Leavitt, the team's first task after putting together our core staff was to study previous presidential transitions. Several Republican and Democratic veterans of transitions generously granted us interviews and gave recommendations. Romney lost that year, but his and Leavitt's parting advice to us was clear: We had a responsibility to collect and add to the information we had gathered, and to pass that on to future administrations. The result was the book Romney Readiness Project 2012: Retrospective and Lessons Learned, which documented everything we had done. It remains a useful guide for any presidential campaign, red or blue.
At a farewell party for Dick Cheney in 1977, when he was finishing his tenure as Gerald Ford's chief of staff, his colleagues gave him a bicycle wheel with mangled spokes connecting the center to the rim. It was a metaphor as well as a joke — an embodiment of the administration's misbegotten management style.
President Ford had initially rejected hiring a chief of staff, intending to send a signal that his presidency would be different from that of Richard Nixon. But this created a system in which too many people reported to the president directly rather than through a chief of staff. The result was chaos.
Ford later reversed his stance, eventually appointing Cheney to the position. When Cheney left the White House following the election of Jimmy Carter, he gave the wheel to his successor and attached a note reading: "[B]eware the spokes of the wheel."
Yet Carter, failing to learn from Ford's missteps, also tried to function without a chief of staff. It was a "fatal mistake," Carter aide Jack Watson observed of the approach. "It pull[ed] the president into too much; he [was] involved in too many things." Other administrations have taken time to get control of the White House as well. Thomas McLarty, who was Clinton's first chief of staff, oversaw a chaotic EOP before he was replaced by Leon Panetta — a strict manager of presidential time and attention.
My early weeks in the White House in 2017 were similarly full of confused lines of communication and reporting. We spent an inordinate amount of time and energy sorting out disputes, such as who had "walk-in privileges" to the Oval Office, who would be a member of the National Security Council (NSC), and whether the newly created Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy would stand on its own or become part of the National Economic Council (NEC). These problems are best resolved before an inauguration, not during a president's first term, when all efforts should be directed toward governing.
Other issues are more endemic, and may require a blank-slate approach that achieves a broader reimagining of EOP configuration and management. For instance, dozens of White House units are designed according to different dimensions, from functional to geographic, and often feature complicated matrix structures. As a result, responsibility for a given aspect of policy — say, technology — might sit with the NEC, the NSC, the Domestic Policy Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or all of the above. Multiple owners and overlapping jurisdictions tend to result in poor coordination on policy delivery and a lack of accountability. To the extent that an organizational chart exists, it seldom reflects how the EOP operates in reality.
This organizational labyrinth is compounded by the dozens of people — from more than 20 cabinet members to around 25 assistants — who, at least on paper, report directly to the president. This arrangement, which implies a span of control of some 50 people, is impractical — no organization would consciously adopt it. Although a good chief of staff can handle some of the resulting turmoil (performing the role of what Watson, who eventually became Carter's chief of staff, called "the javelin catcher"), it makes effective management significantly more difficult than it should be.
A systematic approach to clarifying responsibilities and reporting relationships, devised months before the inauguration, could forestall many of these problems before they arise. One solution might involve developing charters, or governance documents, that describe the general purpose and specific duties of the various White House offices and councils. The idea here would be to streamline and clarify roles depending on the distinctive priorities of an incoming administration, and to limit the number of people who have direct access to the president.
The White House is also full of policy offices, but they often fail to focus on implementation. Harry Truman put the problem memorably when speaking of his successor, Dwight Eisenhower: "He'll say, 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen." While implementation duties themselves are primarily vested in executive departments and agencies, accountability for policy delivery should reside with the White House. With this in mind, the Year Zero team should design a new system that aligns EOP structure with presidential priorities, takes account of implementation capacity and skills, and clarifies roles well ahead of the inauguration.
Making decisions lies at the core of the president's role. Each stage in the decision-making process — determining what decisions must be made and how best to make them, presenting the president with options, and turning decisions into actions — is important. To be successful, an administration's decision-making framework needs to be built well ahead of time and tied to the EOP's structural design.
Such a framework is vital, because bad decisions can lead to disastrous results. President John Kennedy discovered as much after approving the Bay of Pigs operation early in his term. The planning to support Cuban exiles in their effort to overthrow Fidel Castro was in its advanced stages when Kennedy was sworn in. During briefings, several of the president's top aides, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, had doubts about the mission, but because the plans were so far along, they hesitated to voice their objections. Their failure to provide direct, candid advice to the president led to a debacle in April 1961 that embarrassed both the president and the nation, all while emboldening Castro. Thankfully, when the Cuban missile crisis occurred 18 months later, the team had put into place a much more robust decision-making process. But such success shouldn't require an early catastrophe.
The most effective decision-making frameworks generally include a combination of structured and unstructured processes. The structured process brings clarity to policy decisions and actions that are more predictable. It determines the selection of priorities, who gives input on those priorities, and how various options are presented to the president for the final decision. The structured process should have a clear communication and implementation plan with responsibilities assigned. Brent Scowcroft, national-security advisor to George H. W. Bush, developed a system consisting of meetings that circulated upward based on rank, from junior staff to deputy secretaries to secretaries and senior White House officials, and then finally to the president. Though national-security advisors occasionally try to hijack the process to promote their own agendas, the NSC has generally followed the model ever since. The rest of the White House has applied it unevenly, but it remains the best approach when multiple entities need to act in concert to generate options for the president.
Given that uncontrollable external events and changing presidential directives drive so much activity in the White House, decision-making frameworks should also incorporate an unstructured process. Structured processes are critical for ensuring that the planes land on time, but the White House also needs the flexibility to respond to changed circumstances at a moment's notice. And although the specifics of such events cannot be anticipated ahead of time, the methods for confronting one can be designed in advance.
An unstructured process should take account of the need to put out fires quickly, redirect resources, and shift priorities at a moment's notice. In my role as deputy chief of staff, I typically had time each day to discuss policy with the president. Our system followed the Scowcroft approach, but my first task every morning was to re-assess and re-plan everything based on what had happened during the previous 24 hours, taking stock of changing events and priorities. Sometimes that meant making minor adjustments; other times it required a complete overhaul of the original plan.
The style of presidential decision-making is also important to consider. Some presidents, like Carter and Obama, preferred reading over briefing books and written material. Others, like Trump, appreciated having advisors discuss matters and debate in front of them. Carter's approach was to dive into detail ("my ability to govern well would depend upon my mastery of the extremely important issues I faced"), while Ronald Reagan's was hands off ("surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the overall policy that you've decided upon is being carried out").
In the Trump White House, we learned that the most productive meetings in the Oval Office were small, with up to five advocates of different viewpoints gathered before the Resolute desk with few bystanders. The prime example was the trade group, whose members represented the full spectrum of ideologies: from protectionist Peter Navarro to free-trader Larry Kudlow, with Ambassador Robert Lighthizer and Secretaries Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross falling in between. Debates both before and during the meetings were vigorous, and gave the president real-time input into pursuing his goals.
A White House full of new colleagues in governing mode does not have the luxury of time to establish these kinds of decision-making frameworks. Year Zero is the period when these structures should be developed, tested directly with the presidential candidate, and integrated into a clear governing framework.
The tumultuous presidential transition of late 2020 and early 2021 demonstrated the need for detailed crisis-management procedures. Nothing I had previously done in my career, from more than three decades in the private sector to four years in the White House, could have prepared me for that situation. As the White House officer in charge of the transition, and with the president refusing to concede the election, I had to develop a plan to ensure continuity in government. The same was true of my counterpart on the Biden transition team.
Presidential transitions are usually peaceful affairs, of course, with both winning and losing participants guided by a sense of patriotic duty and a belief in the fairness of the result, even in the aftermath of a bitter, hard-fought race. Yet this has not always been the case. The most calamitous example followed the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, when a confederacy of slaveholding states attempted to secede from the Union. Subsequent elections led to inevitable complaints, but serious disputes are becoming more common. In 2000, the electoral result between George W. Bush and Al Gore was so close and controversial that the Supreme Court had to adjudicate the outcome. Since then, candidates in both parties at the federal and state levels have denounced election results. This culminated in President Trump's decision not to accept his defeat in 2020.
As a result, cooperation during presidential transitions can no longer be assumed; a Year Zero team must now confront the very real possibility of a disputed election. Since an incoming administration cannot expect much assistance from an outgoing administration when such quarrels occur, the Year Zero team should have crisis-management plans for contested elections in place well before the period between the election and the inauguration.
Beyond election disputes, other unpredictable events — from national-security threats to economic crises to natural disasters — can quickly overwhelm an administration in its first year unless it is ready to govern from day one. The Year Zero team, therefore, must also develop plans to deal with such emergencies well ahead of a president's inauguration while recognizing that the details of an emergency are by definition not knowable in advance.
Here, the public sector can learn much from the private sector, which pioneered crisis-management techniques when Johnson & Johnson executed a successful recall of its Tylenol products in 1982. These techniques include getting ahead of the crisis, being brutally honest about the state of play and ongoing effects to customers (citizens) and the company (country), taking responsibility for the narrative swiftly, and addressing and alleviating the issue in a comprehensive manner.
These tasks can only be accomplished if the processes for handling a crisis are in place well before an emergency arises. Thus crisis-management planning, including developing a plan for dealing with a contested election, should be a primary task of the Year Zero team.
Some decisions are forced on presidents due to unforeseen crises, but personnel choices are entirely under their control. Few people individually are critical to the success of an administration, but even a small number of inept or disloyal officials can cause significant problems. As Carter found with Bert Lance, Clinton with Zoe Baird, and Trump with Michael Flynn, an early personnel scandal can consume much-needed energy during the first months of an administration and blunt a president's policy agenda.
In his autobiography, President Clinton acknowledged that he "spent hardly any time on the White House staff." His lack of attention showed: He didn't appoint a chief of staff or make his first cabinet nomination until more than a month after his election. His first-year failure to enact health-care reform — his chief legislative goal — can be traced at least in part to these delays. Kennedy also attributed his early struggles to the fact that he "spent so much time getting to know people who could help [him] get elected President that [he] didn't have any time to get to know people who could help [him]...be a good President."
Presidential candidates may be busy campaigning in the last few months before the election, but in the meantime, their advisors can lay the foundation for a successful administration by selecting the right people for the right roles. A well-functioning Year Zero team should begin to systematically vet top-level candidates about six months before the inauguration.
An administration must make some 3,500 appointments of varying levels of importance and difficulty. Cabinet secretaries and their top reports are important, but they require Senate approval, and except for a few critical roles, their confirmations have become mired in political battles in the Senate. Since White House staff shape the initial agenda and do not require Senate confirmation, their vetting and appointment should be the Year Zero team's first concern.
More than the vetting itself, which can be delegated to junior staff, senior members of the team should focus on creating a vetting rubric driven by the president's priorities as well as by the White House structure discussed above. A traditional approach often emphasizes loyalty as the primary selection criteria. Loyalty is crucial when it comes to selecting members of the leadership team, who are there to protect the president's interests. But most appointments are of individuals responsible for generating or executing a narrow set of policy options. For these roles, goal alignment and role competence (including policy expertise) are more important than loyalty as gatekeeping criteria.
Around the same time the Year Zero team develops an approach for vetting personnel, it should also begin to formulate plans for translating campaign promises into legislation. The window for passing legislation is small: After the first year of a presidential term, the specter of midterm elections can overwhelm the legislative calendar.
Most recent presidents have come up short in their efforts to enact legacy programs in the first months of their administrations. Few since President Reagan, who signed tax-reform legislation during his first summer in the White House, have realized a major campaign goal early in the term. The Affordable Care Act was a major achievement for President Obama, but it consumed his presidency for over a year. President Trump sought to overturn the act but failed to advance the project, leaving most of the job to Congress. Six months were lost to an effort that ultimately proved unsuccessful.
In the early days of the last few administrations, presidents have often focused on signing executive orders as their teams began to develop legislative programs. This approach is attractive because it requires no congressional approval. Recent presidents (including Biden, Trump, and Obama) signed dozens of executive orders during their first 200 days in office. Yet a significant proportion of these orders were symbolic, or simply overturned the past administration's equivalent executive orders; few will be remembered as legacy achievements for a particular president.
While executive orders can be useful to build momentum, the initial part of a president's first year should be more focused on legacy legislation. An incoming president can and should drive the legislative agenda by immediately introducing proposals and urging lawmakers to address them.
To ensure its candidate is prepared to hit the legislative ground running, the Year Zero team should think about the lawmaking process well before the inauguration — deciding on the priorities for the president's first 200 days and building the necessary coalitions for successful passage of a signature piece of legislation. Campaign leaders often resist this approach, fearing leaks and worrying that the specificity of legislation will create election vulnerabilities. But a small and effective leadership team can and should be trusted to begin this process before an election takes place.
As with current practices surrounding executive orders, external think tanks and policy groups can be invited to submit ideas for much of the legislative drafting. Meanwhile, candidates can stick to broad themes and principles without pledging themselves to details. As the Year Zero team moves into the formal period of transition after the election, it can collaborate with members of an incoming Congress on fine-tuning drafted bills, planning the calendar, and clearing roadblocks.
Finally, any legislative plans will need to factor in the partisan composition of Congress. In the last half-century, presidents have usually faced a divided Congress; only twice has the president's party had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Presidential candidates may campaign on transformative agendas, but their Year Zero team must plan for scenarios that include bipartisan compromise to achieve early victories and momentum. Here, President Reagan had an instructive approach: "If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later."
READY TO LEAD
Successful transitions of power are a glory of our democracy, even when they occur after disputed elections. I've learned many lessons from my experiences on transition teams and serving in the White House, but my most important takeaway is that it's never too soon to prepare for a new presidential administration.
To serve as an effective chief executive, candidates must approach the presidency as a five-year journey with an extensive planning period during Year Zero — the year before the election. A well-executed Year Zero sets up candidates for a successful term by focusing on several key tasks: assembling a leadership team, acquiring institutional knowledge, designing coherent structures and decision-making processes, preparing for crises, and appointing the right people to implement desired policies.
Presidential teams are in control of these preparations, and their decisions make a meaningful difference. Completing them during Year Zero frees up the president's first 200 days for policy action and builds momentum for a fruitful four-year governing period. In the private sector, effective planning can marginally improve an organization; in the White House, it can make the first year up to 100% more effective, since staffers won't have to waste the first six months preparing to govern.
Candidates should also be willing to showcase their preparations. "Measuring the drapes" should be seen as a positive move, not a negative one. Ideally, voters would take these preparatory steps into account in selecting candidates, judging them not only for what they hope to accomplish and how they seek to lead, but whether they are capable of doing it.