There were two scenarios.  If President Obama were re-elected, one  expected to see substantial re-tooling of his Administration.  If voters elected a new president, he or she would have to make effective use of the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day so as to "hit the ground running."

The 2012 Transition

After the excitement of Election Night, it is time to turn attention to governing.  The two transition scenarios were re-election of the President Obama and a revamping of the government, or election of a President Romney and a complete overhaul.

Had he been elected as he and his campaign expected, former Gov. Mitt Romney was ready to hit the ground running.  Former Utah Governor and HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt headed Romney's transition efforts starting in May 2012.  As a result of the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010, Romney had the resources to open a large transition office in Washington, DC in September 2012.  The Romney Readiness Project, R2P, Inc., involved close to 500 people [organization], and according to reporting by Time magazine, the Romney transition cost the federal government about $8.9 million (1).

President Obama was of course re-elected, and there has been a fairly typical level of  turnover in the Administration.  Out  of his 22-person Cabinet, eight Cabinet secretaries and several other Cabinet level officials left.  There were several controversies.  U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, said to be a leading contender for Secretary of State, withdrew from consideration on Dec. 13.  Obama's choice of Sen. Chuck Hagel as his nominee for Secretary of Defense generated a fair bit of opposition, primarily over his views on Israel and Iran (see ads 1, 2).  After a party-line vote in the Senate Armed Service Committee on Feb. 12, the Hagel nomination failed on Feb. 14 to get enough votes for cloture in the full Senate, and was held over recess until he was finally confirmed on Feb. 26 in a 58-41 vote.  Labor Secretary nominee Tom Perez ran into opposition from Republicans over concerns of liberal activism.  On May 2, Obama named his Commerce and USTR picks, leaving only the Cabinet-level SBA Administrator post to be announced.  (April 30 marked the first 100 days of Obama's second term). 

Cabinet Changes Following the Nov. 2012 Election

Date Annc'd Resign.
Date Annc'd
Date Conf.
State H. Rodham Clinton

Sen. John Kerry
Dec. 21
Jan. 24
Jan. 29
Defense Leon Panetta

Fmr. Sen. Chuck Hagel
Jan. 7
Jan. 31
Feb. 26
Treasury Tim Geithner

WH CoS Jack Lew
Jan. 10
Feb. 13
Feb. 27
WH CoS  Jack Lew

Dep. Nat'l Sec. Adv. Denis McDonough
Jan. 25
Rebecca M. Blank, acting
Mar. 18
PSP Capital Partners CEO Penny Pritzker
May 2 May 23
June 25
Jeffrey Zients, deputy

Sylvia Mathews Burwell Mar. 4 Apr. 10
Apr. 24
Lisa Jackson
Dec. 27
Assist. Administrator Gina McCarthy
Mar. 4
Apr. 11
July 18
Hilda Solis
Jan. 9
Assist. AG Tom Perez
Mar. 18
Apr. 18
July 18
Ken Salazar
Jan. 16
REI CEO Sally Jewell
Feb. 6
Mar. 7
Apr. 10
Ron Kirk
Jan. 22
Dep. Nat'l Sec. Adv. Mike Froman
May 2
June 6
June 19
Ray LaHood
Jan. 29
Mayor Anthony Foxx
Apr. 29
May 23
June 27
Stephen Chu
Feb. 1
Physics professor Ernie Moniz
Mar. 4
Apr. 9
May 16
Karen Mills
Feb. 11

Turnover is not limited to the Cabinet; for example on the same day he announced the Hagel nomination, Obama announced John Brennan as his nominee for director of the CIA.  The Brennan nomination provided the occasion for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)'s 12 hour 52 minute filibuster on drones on March 7.

On the issues agenda, discussions between the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans on how to avert a "fiscal cliff" dominated the latter part of November and December; ultimately a short-term deal was reached. 

The horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut on Dec. 14 elevated the issue of gun violence to the fore.  Vice President Biden led a working group on gun violence, and on Jan. 16 President Obama announced proposals to address the problem.  However, on April 17 legislation to expand background checks and other meaures failed in votes in the U.S. Senate.

President Obama's strong showing among Hispanics spurred considerable talk that  immigration reform would be addressed.  A bipartisan group of senators initiated the debate on Jan. 28, announcing a framework for comprehensive immigration reform, and President Obama set out his views on the issue in a speech in Las Vegas the next day.  The bipartisan "gang of Eight" introduced its bill, the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act" (S.744), on April 16.

Second terms can be difficult--one recalls for example the dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and late-term economic difficulties of President George W. Bush's tenure or the Lewinsky scandal during President Bill Cinton's second term.  By May 2013, President Obama had hit some rough patches.  In addition to the failure on gun legislation, the Adminstration's handling of the attacks on Benghazi. apparent political targeting at the IRS, and the challenge of implementing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in the face of ongoing Republican opposition presented an environment sure to test the president's leadership skills.

Transition Version One: Re-tooling

One can compare President Obama's 2012-13 transition with President George W. Bush's 2004-05 transition and President Bill Clinton's 1996-97 transition.

Following the 2004 election President Bush moved quickly and decisively to re-shape his Cabinet, accepting resignations from nine department secretaries in little more than one month.  Bush nominated people already serving in the administration to fill most of these positions.  However there was one botched nomination; Bush's first choice to replace Tom Ridge at Homeland Security, Bernard Kerik, pulled his name from consideration amid controversy.  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld retained the President's support despite statements from some Senators expressing a lack of confidence.

During the transition, Bush made it clear that he intended to tackle big issues in his second term.  On December 15 and 16 he convened an economic summit in Washington, DC where he emphasized his determination to address the nation's economic challenges.  The conference included six panels: State of Our Economy, Tax and Regulatory Burdens, The High Costs of Lawsuit Abuse, Making Healthcare More Affordable, Financial Challenges for Today and Tomorrow, and Preparing for the Jobs of the 21st Century.

Following the 1996 election, President Clinton accepted resignations of seven department secretaries as well as White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Senior Policy Advisor George Stephanopoulos.

Transition Version Two: Hit the Ground Running

If the incumbent is defeated, the new president-elect and his transition team must make effective use of the time between Election Day and the Inauguration so as to "hit the ground running."  Amid euphoria and exhaustion, responsibility looms.  Expectations are high.  The one-time candidate must assume a "presidential aura."  

Charles Jones, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, has an interesting way of describing the process.  He notes that the campaign is centered around one person, the candidate.  After the campaign, the challenge is "attaching that person to the government."  The transition requires skilled management.  A certain amount of tension in this period is inevitable.  People who have worked hard on the campaign now see others being brought in to manage the transition.  There is much jockeying for position, various constituencies make their cases, and resumes proliferate.

The transition is not only the beginning of a new administration, but the end of an old one.  Handing over the reins of power requires considerable preparation on the side of the outgoing administration.  The new team must be briefed; records must be boxed and filed.  During its waning days, the outgoing administration will also endeavor to get as much done as possible, attempting to produce some last accomplishments to add to its legacy and making a final round of appointments, executive orders, regulations, and pardons.

With assistance from the General Services Administration, the transition sets up in an office in downtown DC.  In the transition office the focus is on the nitty gritty of building a new administration.  Careful attention is given to selecting sub-cabinet personnel, learning about the pending issues in various agencies, and figuring out what policy initiatives to advance.  Myriad sub-Cabinet posts must be filled, including deputy secretaries and agency heads. (2)  The White House staff also takes shape.  There is no shortage of aspirants for positions in the administration; the transition office will receive tens of thousands of resumes.  Every manner of interest group and a large number of interested individuals weigh in on policies and priorities for the new administration.

Meanwhile, there is much speculation in the media about possible Cabinet picks, and it is the president-elect's Cabinet selections that make headlines.  Typically Secretary of State or Secretary of Treasury nominees are the first named.  Care must be taken to avoid early flaps which can undercut the fledgling administration's effectiveness and support.  Although vetting is intense, there are often a few miscues, meaning there may be a nominee or two who ends up withdrawing from consideration.  In due time Senate confirmation hearings of Cabinet nominees begin in relevant committees.  Each nominee will have a team to guide him or her through the confirmation process; there are policy, legal, press and congressional affairs aspects to consider.  Traditionally the Senate will not block a nominee unless he or she has ethical problems or is not qualified. 

The First 100 Days

Much attention is given to the first 100 days. One hundred is a nice round mumber, but arbitrary. The original first 100 days refers to the start of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's tenure in 1933 during the Great Depression (+), and the 100 days continues to be used as a convenient marker to measure a president's early progress.  Just as one cannot judge how a runner will perform in a marathon from the first two miles, one should not draw too many conclusions about a term of 1,461 days from the first 100 days.  Six months provides a better marker.  Nonetheless the early actions of a new administration are fraught with symbolism and can give a sense of how it will operate. 

The beginning of any administration is a time of many firsts.  There is the President's first official act, his or her first full day in office,  his first formal interview as President, his first trip to Capitol Hill, his first trip to the Pentagon as commander-in-chief, his first piece of legislation signed, his first news conference as President, his first trip overseas as President, his first meeting with a foreign leader at the White House, his first Cabinet meeting, his first State Dinner and so forth.  [2008 | 2000]

The Parties Recalibrate

Typically the leadership of both national party committees changes after a presidential election.  The president or president-elect will select the chairman of his or her party.  For the losing side, a number of hopefuls compete to rebuild the party, and there is much discussion about how to move beyond the recent defeat (1, 2).  The 2012 post-election scenario was a bit different.  President Obama asked Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to stay on at the DNC, and Reince Priebus was re-elected to continue at the helm of the RNC.  Priebus formed a Growth & Opportunity Project which presented its recommendations on March 18.

On Oct. 16, 2010, President Obama signed into law S.3196, the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010, providing for the General Service Administration to provide for transition planning resources starting after the nominating conventions.  Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-DE) and several other Senators introduced the bill in April 2010 (+), based on recommendations in a report from the Partnership for Public Service.

The book Romney Readiness Project: Retrospective & Lessons Learned (R2P, Inc., May 2013) offers the definitive account of the Romney transition effort. 

A good early article on Leavitt's role: Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns.  "Mike Leavitt, the man planning the Romney presidency."  Politico, June 3, 2012. 

See also the excellent article: Katy Steinmetz.  "The Cost of Romney's Government-Assisted Transition: $8.9 Million."  Time, Dec. 19, 2012.

2. On Aug. 10, 2012, President Obama signed into law S.679, the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, which reduces the number of executive positions subject to Senate confirmation.