The nation was deep in crisis, the White House was about to switch parties, and the outgoing president was focused on the potential for chaos.
There was to be none of it.
With the economy free-falling in late 2008, George W. Bush instructed members of his administration to go out of their way to make the transition to Barack Obama’s presidency as smooth as possible. Bush himself ultimately made the biggest concession in that regard, infuriating many fellow Republicans by authorizing a $17.4 billion bailout of General Motors and Chrysler a month before Obama took office.
“I told Barack Obama that I wouldn’t let the automakers fail,” Bush recalled in his 2010 memoir, “Decision Points.” “I won’t dump this mess on him.”
Fast forward a dozen years to another transition in a crisis-stricken America — this time with a deadly pandemic that has triggered a devastating economic downturn — and a president who seems to be taking the polar opposite approach: Create as much of a mess as possible on his way out the door.
“If there’s a continuum of smoothness, the 2008 transition stands out as about the best we’ve had and the current one is one of the worst, if not the worst,” said Charles Walcott, an expert on presidential transitions.
President Trump has refused to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden, and baseless challenges of the results led to a delay of more than two weeks in the formal start of the complicated transition. The process is rolling now after the head of the federal General Services Administration late last month issued the necessary ascertainment that Biden was the apparent election winner.
““The trajectory seems to be going in the right direction,” said Yohannes Abraham, executive director of the Biden transition. “There are some pockets of noncooperation and some that have been persistent.”
On top of that, the Trump administration is taking steps that will hamstring Biden when he enters office, such as pulling troops out of Afghanistan and requiring the next Treasury secretary to get congressional approval before gaining access to $455 billion in unspent coronavirus relief money. The $900 virus relief bill passed by Congress on Monday will help Biden, although Trump suggested Tuesday night that he might not sign the legislation and called for larger stimulus checks for Americans.
Presidential transitions are difficult enough during normal times, with the need to get up to speed on a multitude of issues and make 4,000 political appointments, including 1,200 that require Senate confirmation. During a crisis, the stakes increase exponentially, according to scholars and people who have been through those disruptions.
“There is no time to learn on the job. You’ve got to hit the ground running,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama who went through the 2008 transition. “It is a very, very hard job and the Trump administration is doing nothing to make it easier, and because of that, it perhaps is going to make it more challenging to protect Americans from the pandemic and help the economy recover.”
Biden is better prepared than most incoming presidents to handle the complications of a rocky transition because he spent eight years as vice president, experts said. And his team sensed there could be problems if he won.
“We built in contingencies so that, even in the case of a recalcitrant administration, we’d be able to move the ball forward on our priorities,” Abraham said. They included meetings with former Obama and Trump administration officials and nongovernmental groups after the election to get an informal start while the official transition was delayed.
Still, Abraham said that every day of delay “had a cost to it.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnaney said last week that Trump “has taken all statutory requirements necessary to either ensure a smooth transition or a continuation of power.” But by continuing to suggest that Trump still might be president after Jan. 20 despite the Electoral College formally affirming Biden’s victory, a mixed message is being sent from the top about cooperating with the incoming administration.
“As much as the transition has been defined by Trump’s resistance, if you look below that, if you look at the operation of the federal government, you’ll see that the law is being carried and there is information flowing from one side to the other,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, co-director of the White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan group of presidential scholars that provides guidance on the process.
But she acknowledged that this transition “definitely remains problematic.”
“Within an administration, people who have been appointed by him to political positions will take cues from the president,” said Kumar, a retired political science professor at Towson University.
The cues from Bush in 2008 were clear.
He had gone through a shortened transition in 2000 because of the Florida recount. The independent commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks later said the delay slowed the filling of key national security positions that made it more difficult to foresee the threat.
So with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush told his chief of staff, Josh Bolten, in late 2007 that he wanted to have the best transition ever, according to Kumar, who wrote a 2015 book about it, “Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power.”
The financial crisis that struck in the fall of 2008 made a smooth transition even more crucial. That became obvious in December 2008 when General Motors and Chrysler were on the verge of bankruptcy and Congress was unable to pass legislation to bail them out. Bob Corker, then a Republican senator from Tennessee, was a major player on the legislative effort and got a call from Bush one morning.
“He said, ‘Corker, I’m going to do something that I never in the world thought I would be doing,’ “ recalled Corker, who retired from the Senate in 2019. Later that day, Bush announced he would tap the $700 billion bank bailout fund to keep the automakers afloat short term, on the condition they be restructured following principles Corker had advocated.
“It was the furthest thing in the world a Republican administration would wish to do, but they knew that if something didn’t happen, massive job losses were going to be taking place,” Corker said. “I know they anguished over it a great deal within the administration. I just felt like at the end of the day, for the country’s sake, he felt like it was the right thing to do.”
The bailout kept the companies from going under during the transition, providing time for Obama to expand the rescue after taking office as part of a government-led restructuring.
Bush’s controversial decision exemplified his approach to the transition.
“You can never be 100 percent prepared for those jobs, but the Bush administration went above and beyond what was required to help us do that. The Biden people are not getting that,” said Pfeiffer, who transitioned into the role of White House deputy communication director in 2008. He now cohosts the political podcast “Pod Save America.”
Abraham was also an Obama aide at the time.
“They couldn’t have been more gracious in helping the Obama administration come in with a running start,” he said of the Bush administration. “Obviously, that’s been different this time around, from contesting the clear election results to the delayed ascertainment of the election by the GSA, which in turn delayed key transition activities.”
The transition has been progressing the past few weeks. Biden’s agency review teams have held more than 1,000 meetings and interviews with staff at more than 100 federal agencies, including at the Department of Health and Human Services about the pandemic and vaccine distribution.
“We’re learning a lot. We’re downloading a lot,” Abraham said. “There’s a lot more to download.”
Walcott, an emeritus political science professor at Virginia Tech University who also is part of the White House Transition Project, said the transition delays could take months to make up.
“I’m concerned that there may be a repeat of 2000 in a sense that the jobs might not get filled quite fast enough in a world in which all kinds of trouble can happen,” Walcott said.
“This is something that people tended to take for granted,” he said of a smooth transition, “and now it’s really important.”