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How Presidential Transitions Usually Happen And What Could Be Different This Time


Picture the biggest company in the world handing over control of every department to someone who wants to lead the company in a completely different direction. Well, that's one way to think about the transition that has to happen between now and January 20, except Joe Biden isn't about to become CEO of a corporation. He'll be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States in the middle of a pandemic and an economic recession.


Any presidential transition is a challenge and even more so now, when President Trump refuses to concede defeat. A political appointee who runs the office that approves funding for a presidential transition is delaying the Biden team's access to millions of dollars for staff and office space. Chris Lu was executive director of President Barack Obama's transition in 2008, and he joins us now.


CHRIS LU: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: This political appointee I mentioned, Emily Murphy, says she's waiting for a clear winner before she'll approve the formal transition process, even though Biden has a definitive lead, and President Trump has almost no legal path to change the outcome. And so for the Biden team right now, how big a hurdle is this lack of funding from the General Services Administration?

LU: Well, it's a hurdle. I think it can be overcome. And, hopefully, this is just a temporary setback. You know, in previous transitions, this has never really been an issue. I go back to 2008 when I was the executive director of Obama's transition. Two hours after the election was called, we got the letter from the GSA administrator ascertaining that we were the winners and had access to federal support. And so I hope this does not drag on too long because it's problematic.

SHAPIRO: Give us a sense of what actually has to happen before January 20 in practical terms. I mean, when we talk about continuity of government, what does that actually mean?

LU: You laid it out well in the introduction. You certainly wouldn't run any company this way where on one day, the entire senior leadership walks out the door. And the fact that we pull this off every four or eight years with the U.S. government, which is the largest, most powerful organization in the world, I think is both a testament to the career officials who are involved in this transition, but I think it also speaks to this norm, this historical norm of outgoing and incoming administrations cooperating, even after a really bitter presidential campaign. So, again, I hope that norm holds up this year.

SHAPIRO: I mean, we're talking about everything from the Pentagon to Housing and Urban Development and every department in between. What are the stakes? Like, what happens if the transition is dysfunctional or doesn't have as much time as people would like?

LU: You know, we've never had that situation before. And, hopefully we don't face it. But you're right. It's not just national security. It's homeland security. It's - we're in the middle of an economic recession right now. We're in the middle of a pandemic. It's not just the cooperation being important to help a President Biden, but it's all the things that have to take place to ensure that that handoff on noon on January 20 happens seamlessly. And we also need to understand - and one of the reasons why this was such a serious issue in 2008, 2009 - that was the first post-9/11 transition. And we know that transitions can be very tenuous times where if you're a foreign adversary, you might want to exploit that. So it's important to have that cooperation on these national security issues well before Election Day.

SHAPIRO: I mean, we should note the 9/11 Commission Report said that the recounts in Florida in 2000 and the delayed transition contributed to the country being unprepared for the crisis. We've heard all along that the Biden team anticipated that the Trump administration might not cooperate. And Joe Biden did spend eight years in the White House as vice president. So how much can his team do on his own without help from the other side?

LU: That's an important point. You know, as I said, these obstacles are not ideal. But if there's anyone that can overcome them, it's Joe Biden. This is a person who comes to the White House with more government experience than probably anyone else that has taken the position. He is surrounded by experienced staffers who have also worked in government. So, again, not ideal, but if there's one person who I think can overcome that, it's Joe Biden.

SHAPIRO: Your former boss President Barack Obama was fond of saying there's only one president at a time. And today, President-elect Biden announced his coronavirus task force. He was right out of the gate commenting on the Pfizer vaccine news. Do you think he's getting ahead of his skis right now?

LU: You know, I don't. I think if you go back to 2008, you know, there was consultation in terms of financial recovery efforts during the Great Recession. And again, if we want to ensure that vaccine development, production distribution happens seamlessly - because it's not going to just happen between now and January 20. It's going to happen after that. You want to make sure that both the incoming and outgoing administrations are on the same page. Yes, there's only one president at one time, but it's useful for the incoming team to understand what the outgoing team is doing.

SHAPIRO: That is Chris Lu. He was part of former President Barack Obama's transition team. And he is now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

Thanks very much for talking with us today.

LU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.