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Presidential Transition Process is Civil, Complex

When one U.S. president leaves office and the next one takes over, hundreds of people are involved in a thorough, complex handoff of the federal government. This ensures its ongoing function throughout its many departments and agencies. In this segment of "How America Elects," presidential transition officials from several recent administrations describe the process. VOA's Jeffrey Young reports.

It is the end of one presidential administration, and the beginning of the next. The U.S. government continues without interruption because of a formal transition process that enables the new president to properly function on his first day in office.

When President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20, his new administration will already have detailed knowledge of the U.S. government's vast operations. That is the result of officials at many levels in the outgoing administration meeting with and familiarizing the new president's key people.

Elections can be contentious. But Al From, who handled domestic policy for incoming President Bill Clinton in 1992, says politics is separate from the transition process.

"You just can't say, you know, We have been in the White House for four years or eight years," he said. "Our party lost the election. The new guys are coming in. Here are the keys. Take over.' The government has to function."

The 2000 transition between Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush was held up for more than a month because of the vote recount in Florida.

The fight between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It ruled in favor of Mr. Bush, who then claimed the White House. But despite the political turmoil, the transition was civil and effective.

The massive size of the U.S. government requires several hundred outgoing and incoming transition officials to properly hand off the reins of power, as President Clinton's first Chief of Staff, Mack McLarty, explains.

"There is no way to accomplish this without organizing, breaking down if you will, the various multifaceted aspects of government - Defense, Justice, Commerce - all of the cabinet agencies," he stated. "Of all of the independent agencies like NASA, the Office of Science, the National Endowment [for the Arts] - - on and on and on. It is a big federal government."

Paul McNulty handled Justice Department transition for both President Bushes in 1992 and 2000. He describes a detailed process his teams underwent that is common throughout the government.

"The transition at the Department of Justice requires dozens of people working in an audit-like approach to each one of those pieces. Coming in, meeting with the officials of that particular component of DOJ, getting an idea of the budget, the number of people in the component, and the hottest issues on the table at the time. And then bringing that information into a succinct, clear summary, and providing that to the new team of leaders coming into the Department of Justice," he said.

And the work does not stop when the new president is inaugurated. Clay Johnson, who was Executive Director of President Bush's incoming transition team in 2000, says the frenetic pace extends well into the first year of the new administration.

"Everybody is working seven days a week for probably the two and a half months of the transition period, and almost certainly for the six to eight months of the, of the first six to eight months of the new administration. It is just a very, very intense time," he stated.