- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journalists have to write stories about people running presidential transitions. It is part of the job description. They are only following orders.
But that doesn’t mean you, the Reader, must read or believe these stories.
I mention this because my experience in covering presidential transitions — only in the national security area — is that everybody seems to think that the people running them in various parts of the government will be influential in those areas for years to come. Yet I haven’t seen that to be true.
Why do transition staffers fade? My guess is that a big part of the job is saying “no.” For every person who gets a plum job, dozens more might have wanted it. So transition officials make a lot of enemies.
Also transitions can be bruising experiences internally. As we are already seeing with President-elect Trump, there is a big difference between what a presidential candidate promises and what a president-elect can offer. So there is a natural air of disappointment in a transition. Those who staffed the campaign in particular are likely to grow bitter as they see nice slots go to people who never lifted a finger to help the candidate, even though those outsiders may be far better suited for the job in question. I remember back in December 2008 that Obama campaign vets winced every time a Clintonite got a nice job.
That said, the nastiest transitions tend to be intra-party. (The Reagan to Bush handover was legendary.) By contrast, very few Obamites expect or want to work in a Trump administration, or would be welcome to do so. Vacating offices is easier when the occupant has no inclination to stay. In a changeover this extreme, the problem may be that when Trumpists knock on doors, they find nobody at home.
And even the people picked may not represent policy directions. Bush chose Colin Powell not to lead his foreign policy but to be a beard for it. Powell, being a good soldier, didn’t get that.
Image credit: Snapshots of the past/Flickr