What to Expect When Expecting Victory: A Look at the Presidential Transition Timeline

Remember the failed Iowa Caucuses? Amy’s “Klomentum” coming out of the New Hampshire Primary? The Clyburn factor in South Carolina? Doesn’t it all seem like decades ago?

America has endured a lot since Super Tuesday and yet here we are – weeks away from Election Day 2020. While the polls continue to favor former Vice President Biden, it is hard to know for certain how this election will shake out. Should Biden claim victory in November, however, many are already beginning to speculate on his transition into office. Look no further than previous transition playbooks for guidance on the team and timeline to usher in a possible new administration.


Beginning the summer ahead of an election, presidential candidates start staffing teams devoted to building a new administration and fleshing out White House staff picks, cabinet positions, agency heads, and deputy secretaries. This team will start sifting through the onslaught of resumes from individuals seeking a position in the new administration and, in the weeks leading up to Election Day, will establish an office in Washington to conduct interviews, connect with current administration officials and formulate the actual transition plan, among other duties.

On September 1, the Biden team acquired access to federal resources including funding, dedicated Washington office space and security clearances for transition officials. Two days later, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Biden and the General Services Administration (required under the Presidential Transition Act) to ensure a smooth transfer of power should he win. And on September 5, Biden’s current transition team, composed of five co-chairs, a 15-person advisory board and additional staff, was announced.

Biden’s transition team includes many familiar faces – long-serving staffers and advisors, former agency specialists and department heads, academics, and former and current government officials and members of Congress. Transition team co-chairs include former Delaware Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman who also served as Sen. Biden’s long-time chief of staff, former Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Jeffrey Zients, New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Louisiana Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, and Anita Dunn who serves as a senior advisor on the Biden campaign.


Historically, shortly after Election Day, the president-elect holds his first formal meeting with the sitting president and the full transition leadership team is announced. In 2008, President-elect Barack Obama announced his transition leadership on November 5 and met with President George W. Bush on November 10. In 2016, President-elect Donald Trump met with President Obama on November 10 and announced his team on November 11. In 2000, due to the unclear election outcome in Florida, both Bush and Al Gore’s teams proceeded with their respective transition preparations until Gore conceded the election on December 13. Bush’s transition began on November 26 when he named vice president-elect Dick Cheney to head the team and the president-elect met with President Bill Clinton on December 19.

Following president-elect meetings with the sitting president and the transition team announcements, agency landing teams – unofficially known as “beachhead” teams – connect with department and agency officials who begin transferring authority to the incoming administration’s picks. While plenty of speculation will have existed throughout the general election as to a president-elect’s cabinet candidates, by late November, formal meetings with the frontrunners will be held. The public will learn of these meetings and discussions – and names of eventual nominees – via leaks and/or official press statements released to the media.

Typically, the president-elect’s first announcements are for White House chief of staff and for the first cabinet member – customarily Secretary of State or Secretary of the Treasury. Obama announced his first formal cabinet member, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, on November 24, 2008, and finalized his cabinet selections less than a month later. Trump’s first cabinet pick came on November 18, 2016, in the announcement of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General; he concluded his appointments on December 13. Due to the delay in confirming the 2000 election winner, Bush announced his first cabinet member, Secretary of State Colin Powell, on December 16, 2000, and made his final cabinet selection on January 11, 2001.

Biden has emphasized his transition team members’ expertise in combatting the public health crisis and restoring the economy, which is perhaps a strong indicator of how a Biden cabinet will be staffed – a mix of liberals and moderates, Obama-era veterans and trusted advisors. Kaufman, who has been heading the transition team, stated Biden’s transition would prioritize several “core values: diversity of ideology and background; talent to address society’s most complex challenges; integrity and the highest ethical standards to serve the American people and not special interests; and transparency to enable trust and visibility at every stage.”


Once the new Congress is sworn-in in early January, relevant Senate committees will begin confirmation hearings for cabinet nominees. This timeline tracks ahead of the president’s inauguration (set this coming year for January 20, 2021) so that the incoming chief executive can hit the ground running with a significant portion of the cabinet in place.

Each cabinet nominee has a team guiding him or her through the policy, press, legal and congressional elements of the confirmation process led by the nominee’s “sherpa.” This staff member is typically someone who either served on the president-elect’s political campaign or was a senior-level volunteer with subject matter expertise in the agency the nominee may soon be leading. In many cases, this will not be the sherpa’s first rodeo; he or she will often have had Capitol Hill experience and existing relationships.

Traditionally, the Senate will not block cabinet picks unless they are unqualified or ethical problems are raised. In fact, the last cabinet nominee rejected by the Senate was President George H.W. Bush ’s pick of former Sen. John Tower (R-TX) to serve as Secretary of Defense by a 47-53 vote in March 1989.

Occasionally, a cabinet nominee selected during the transition may withdraw from consideration. This usually happens to avoid Senate rejection if issues arise ahead of a hearing that would jeopardize the candidate’s confirmation. During President Trump’s transition, his initial pick for Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew his nomination after facing concerns from congressional Republicans who questioned his personal background and business record. President Obama’s first two picks for Secretary of Commerce withdrew from consideration as did his Health and Human Services Secretary-designate former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) over tax issues.

Perhaps one of the more laborious and time-consuming duties of the beachhead team comes after the Senate hearings. Following former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in January 2017, 1,300 Questions for the Record (QFRs) were submitted to the Department of State for transition team members to sort through and provide answers. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) alone submitted 700 QFRs in his role as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the State Department. Prepare for a similar level of cabinet nominee scrutiny in January 2021 should Biden be headed to the White House.


Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is for certain – this is a transition like no other. With public unease around COVID-19, mail-in ballots and issues related to the legitimacy of vote-by-mail, prepare for what could be a drawn-out election transition similar to what occurred in 2000, with results coming out days or weeks after November 3. And even then, there is a great deal of speculation as to what a peaceful transition of power would look like between Trump and Biden should the former vice president win.

Regardless of who wins the presidential election, change is coming either in the form of a reshuffled cabinet or an entirely new one. Now is the time to be solidifying policy asks and developing concrete facts to bolster your Washington priorities. Waiting for the results of November to prepare for inauguration will only ensure that you miss critical moments in time such as cabinet announcements and confirmation hearings to insert your perspective, issues and cause into the conversation. While the election results may be delayed, opportunities to influence the next administration start now.