If President Trump is re-elected one can expect continuity in policies and tone.  If a Democrat is elected, there will be a sharp change in direction; the president-elect and his transtion team will need to make effective use of the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day so as to "hit the ground running."

Early Preparation

Preparation for a possible transition begins, quietly, during the campaign.  At some point, once their nominations are effectively secured, both major candidates designate people to head up transition planning.  The two most likely transition scenarios were re-election of the President Trump and some degree of revamping of the government, or election of a Democrat and a complete overhaul. 

Transitions used to be less institutionalized and more based on personalities.  A 2010 report by the Partnership for Public Service noted, "The lack of an operational framework to guide the process from pre-election through the president’s first year in office has left the country vulnerable in today’s world."  Congress then passed the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010, which provides that following the nominating conventions the major party nominees receive assistance from the General Services Administration for transition planning, including office space, computers and communications services.1 

Further refinements came with the Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 (>) which requires the President to facilitate an efficient transfer of power "by (1) not later than six months before a presidential election, establishing and operating a White House transition coordinating council; and (2) establishing and operating an agency transition directors council."   On Mar. 3, 2020 Presidential Trump signed the Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2019 (>) which sets out additional details including milestones to be achieved by Sept. 1 and Sept. 15.

Although President Trump frequently touted his prospects for re-election, his administration did take steps during the election year to ensure a smooth transition as required by law (1, 2, 3, 4).

Presumptive Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden started working on transition in April 2020.  Progressive and good governance groups quickly issued a letter urging transparency (+).  On June 20, 2020 multiple news outlets reported that Biden's transition team was starting to staff up and in early Sept. 2020 CNN reported on co-chairs, an advisory board and additional staff.  Transition planning activities occur very much in the background, for it would not do for the candidate to be seen as presuming he or she will win.  Nonetheless, as the general election campaign unfolded and filled the news, the transition team started work.  At the same time various groups began to weigh in with advice (1, 2 [PDF], 3).  More than ever before there will be a focus on diversity and inclusion.  Recent transitions, organized as 501(c)(4)s, have grown to be a fairly extensive operations in advance of Election Day. 

Hit the Ground Running

The president-elect must turn his or her full attention to preparing to govern.  The intensity of the campaign and the excitement of Election Night cede to the need to 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 and resumes proliferate.

If Trump had secured re-election, there would no doubt have been a fair amount of turnover in his administration.  This is to be expected.  For example, in Nov.-Dec. 2004 following President George W. Bush's re-election, nine cabinet secretaries resigned (+).  Although Trump appears to have lost his re-election bid, he has ousted some officials seen as being not sufficiently loyal, the most prominent of these was Defense Secretary Mark Esper.  Trump critics wonder "how much damage he will do" before he leaves office.  Trump's unsubstantiated charges of election fraud and refusal to concede, make things more difficult for President-elect Biden.  Most Republicans have continued to back Trump.  As of Nov. 11, the U.S. General Services Administration has not recognized Biden as the winner, which is necessary before the Biden-Harris Transition can receive federal funds. 

Biden faces the challenge of building a new adminstration amidst the backdrop of a very divided and polarized nation, made all the more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic which has peaked at over 100,000 new cases daily (+) and 10 million total cases in the United Sates and a hard hit economy, which has only worsened economic disparities. This has not stopped the transition effort.  Biden is meeting with advisors, speaking on subjects including COVID and health care, and engaging in calls with foreign leaders (+).  On Nov. 10 the Biden-Harris Transition announced Agency Review Teams "crafted to ensure they not only reflect the values and priorities of the incoming administration, but reflect the diversity of perspectives crucial for addressing America’s most urgent and complex challenges."  The diversity theme will be a major focus throughout this transition, just as it was during the Democratic campaign. 

The transition office becomes a center of attention as the work of building a new administration accelerates.  Careful attention is given to selecting personnel, learning about the pending issues in various agencies, and figuring out what policy initiatives to advance.  In addition to the high profile White House staff and Cabinet positions myriad sub-Cabinet posts must be filled, including deputy secretaries and agency heads.  There is no shortage of aspirants for positions in the administration; the transition office will receive tens of thousands of resumes.  There is also no shortage of advice (1, 2, 3).  Every manner of constituency, interest group and a large number of interested individuals weigh in on policies and priorities for the new administration. 

Weighing on the transition is the high probability that the Biden administration will have to work with a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.  During the campaign, the conventional wisdom was that Democrats would likely take control of the Senate; their failure to do so will severely constrain the Biden agenda.

Trump has not conceded, but at some point, if tradition holds, the president and the president-elect will meet.  On Nov. 10, 2016 President Obama and President-elect Trump met for an hour and a half in the Oval Office (>).  On Nov, 10, 2008 President Bush and President-elect Obama met for about two hours (>).

Speculation in the media about possible Cabinet picks begins even before Election Day.  Throughout November and December the White House staff and Cabinet take shape.  Typically the president-elect's first announcement is White House chief of staff, and Biden held to that, announcing long-time advisor Ron Klain as his chief of staff on Nov. 11 (+).  The first Cabinet pick announced is typically either Secretary of State or Secretary of Treasury. 

Trump Transition
On Nov. 13, 2016 Trump led with the controversial announcement of alt-right aligned Stephen K. Bannon to be his chief strategist and senior counselor, balanced by establishment aligned RNC chairman Reince Priebus to be his chief of staff.  His first Cabinet pick, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, provoked controversy as did a number of his other picks.  Trump's selection of Secretary of State provided a bit of ongoing drama; many names were floated and the process carried on to Dec. 13, when the transition office formally announced his selection of Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil.  Overall, Trump's Cabinet picks were conservative, white, male and wealthy and included more people without government experience than in past administrations.

The president-elect will keep up a busy schedule of meetings and events.  For example on Dec. 1 Trump made a high-profile visit to the Carrier plant in Indianapolis; later that day he kicked off his "USA Thank You 2016" tour with a campaign-style rally in Cincinnati, OH (+).  On Nov. 17  Trump held his first meeting with a foreign leader, sitting down with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and he engaged in many calls with world leaders.  Meanwhile the nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts of the transition move forward.  On Nov. 18, the transition office announced the first of the "agency landing teams" which connected with officials in various departments and agencies to facilitate the transfer of power. 

The 117th Congress will be sworn in early Jan. 2021, and Senate confirmation hearings of Cabinet nominees will begin in relevant committees so that the new president can start with key Cabinet members in place.  Each nominee has 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 Cabinet pick unless he or she has ethical problems or is not qualified.  Although vetting is intense [PDF], there can be miscues, meaning there may be a nominee or two who ends up withdrawing from consideration.  The incoming administration must take care to avoid too many early flaps which might undercut its effectiveness and support.   

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.  President Obama gave his farewell address in Chicago on Jan. 10, discussing "the state of our democracy" and a number of threats to it and declaring himself "even more optimistic about this country than when we started" (+).

The First 100 Days  [2016  |  2008  |  2000]

Much attention is given to the first 100 days. One hundred is a nice round number, but it is arbitrary.  The original first 100 days refers to the start of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's tenure in 1933 during the Great Depression (>), and 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 new president uses executive orders and presidential memoranda to get his administration off to a good start and fulfill campaign promises (see executive orders and memoranda).  Early on there will be high profile address to a joint session of Congress, which he or she can use to set and highlight priorities and which will be a major event.  Also on Capitol Hill hearings on the president's Cabinet picks continue.  Most are confirmed without too much trouble, but there may be one or two controversies.  On May 11, 2017 Trump's final Cabinet nominee, USTR nominee Robert Lighthizer, was  approved (+).  The Cabinet is only a the tip of the iceberg in building an administration (1, 2).  All told, according to the Partnership for Public Service, there are about 4,100 positions to fill, including roughly 1,200 positions requiring Senate confirmation.Hundreds of positions may remain unfilled through the first year of an admiinistration, and the work of the departments and agencies goes on under the direction of acting secretaries and leadership [PDF].   

Usually the new president and administration enjoy a honeymoon period.  After four years of an administration things tend to settle into a routine.  Under Trump relations with the media have been difficult at best.  If a new president is elected journalists will have new people to cover and lots of news to report.  There is new energy and there are many firsts: the first executive order, first news conference, first Cabinet meeting, first overseas trip, and first legislative push...  News coverage tends to be favorable.  President Trump was an exception in that his administration and the mainstream news media have had antagonistic relations from the outset.

The Parties Recalibrate

Typically the leadership of both national party committees changes after a presidential election.  The 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. 

In December 2012, RNC chairman Reince Priebus announced a Growth & Opportunity Project "to grow the Republican Party and improve future Republican campaigns."  A 98-page report containing 219 recommendations was released on March 18, 2013 (+).  During the 2016 campaign there was a lot of talk about how Trump's ascendancy marked the end of the Republican Party, but following the campaign it was the Democrats who had to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.  The work of the DNC's Unity Reform Commission during 2017 allowed for discussion of the party's future (+).

On Dec. 14, 2016 the RNC named its leadership for 2017, tabbing Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Trump for President Ohio state director Bob Paduchik (+) as chair and co-chair.  Additionally on Jan. 12, 2017 Trump announced a small leadership team for his re-election campaign (+), and on Jan. 20 he filed a Form 2 with the FEC.  The campaign did not stop (+).

For the Democrats seven major candidates and several lesser known candidates ran for the position of chairman of the DNC.  At the DNC winter meeting in Atlanta, GA on Feb. 25, 2017 [PDF], former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez came up just short on the first ballot, finishing ahead of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison; he then won on the second ballot (+). 

U.S. General Services Administration"Guiding Legislation."

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.

3. Transition organization...
2016: Trump for America, Inc.Clinton-Kaine Transition Project
2012: Romney Readiness Project, R2P, Inc.
2008: Obama-Biden Transition Project
2000: 2000 Bush-Cheney Transition Foundation