Thinks Tanks Begin Planning for the 2016 Presidential Transition

Guest blogger Heath Brown discusses the role of think tanks in the US presidential transition, and calls for more transparency in the process. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

It may seem shockingly early to start talking about the 2016 campaign, but with a near permanent campaign infrastructure in place, the major candidates are getting ready. Funding plans, social media strategies, and celebrity endorsements are discretely in the works for Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul.

Less attention has been drawn to the equally important planning for the 2016 presidential transition – the 11 week period between the election and the inauguration. While media consultants are busy cutting the first campaign advertisements, wonks are figuring out the mechanics of a transition between presidents to insure a safe, efficient, and orderly process occurs. Most of these wonks and policy experts now work for the research think tanks that dot Washington and other major US cities.

Starting this early is not a new thing. In 1960, the most famous think tank, the Brookings Institution, practically invented the concept of a carefully planned presidential transition when it briefed representatives of candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the later stages of the campaign. Brookings feared Cold War threats might be exacerbated if partisan wrangling interrupted the work of the foreign policy establishment prior to the January inauguration.

Twenty years later, and prior to when President Reagan was elected in 1980, scholars at the Heritage Foundation – the conservative think tank founded in the early 1970s by Paul Weyrich, Edwin Feulner, and Joseph Coors – had already mapped an initial policy agenda and identified specific individuals to be appointed to the new Reagan administration.

And in 1999, long before the controversial recount, George W. Bush had tasked one of his closest advisers, Clay Johnson, with developing a personnel plan for his White House. The American Enterprise Institute and other conservative think tanks eventually advised on elements of the Bush transition, including the controversial Energy Task Force chaired by Dick Cheney (see:

In 2008, the Center for American Progress (CAP) had been aggressively planning for the transition, and the president-elect chose that think tank’s leader, John Podesta, to co-chair his transition team (see: Ultimately many of CAPs key staffers were appointed to the Obama White House and other important federal positions.

So, it is not too early to expect the planning to begin, but where can we expect presidential planning in 2015? Since we do not even know who is officially running, we can just speculate at this point.

If Hillary Clinton decides to run, it is reasonable to expect that the Center for American Progress will again be actively planning, since John Podesta is already talked about as a member of the inner circle of her campaign team. But it is also reasonable to expect that the dozens of experts at the Clinton Foundation are developing some of the foreign policy and international affairs ideas that could later make up a Clinton policy agenda.

If Jeb Bush decides to run, many of the same think tanks that supported his brother in 2000 – including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute – will again be active. But organizations tied to Jeb Bush’s favored policy issues, especially school reform, should also be central. Bush founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education and continues to serve as the Chair of its Board (see: His foundation will likely be identifying ways to reorganize the US Department of Education and which education policymakers might be nominated to crucial positions.

If Rand Paul decides to run we cannot rely on precedent as we can for Clinton and Bush. Instead, Paul’s libertarian leanings might invite the Cato Institute into the process, and a new array of policy experts with a very different perspective would take part in the process.

Unfortunately, the moment word gets out that a candidate is even tacitly coordinating transition planning they will be accused of “measuring the White House drapes” or “counting chickens before they hatch.” The tendency of the media to frame pre-election transition planning as presumptuous prevents candidates and think tanks from the type of transparency that would advance rather than hinder democracy.  Think tanks should be involved in planning, but transition planning should be made as public as Federal Election Commission regulations require major aspects of the campaign. Greater transparency would reduce concerns that voters and other large segments of the country are shut out of a critical aspect of federal policymaking. Think tanks can be leaders in this move toward openness if they openly report the transition planning that will likely dominate their work in the new year.


Heath Brown is assistant professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is the author of Lobbying the New Presidents: Interests in Transition that has just been released in paper-back (see: