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What to Expect in President Obama’s Transition to a Second Term

Staff turnovers, budget considerations, and more advantages and disadvantages as explained by a presidency scholar.

Photograph courtesy of Martha Joynt Kumar.

How much transition is there for an incumbent President who has been reelected? After all, he’s already there, his staff is essentially in place, and he knows his way around the White House. In terms of process and basics, how does the first term differ from the second, and is there anything similar to the honeymoon accorded a first-term President?

We took these questions and more to Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson State University. She is a presidency scholar who focuses in particular on the issues of transition, as well as the relationship between administration officials and the White House press corps*. She is currently working on a new book, Mapping the Glide Path to Power: The 2008-2009 Presidential Transition.

What’s the first thing to know about the transition of an incumbent President?

First of all, the passage from the first term to the second is not regarded by the federal government as a transition. You’re not provided any special materials, opportunities, or budget. There is some money for training for new people coming in.

Is there a honeymoon for the President in a second term?

The nature of a second term doesn’t allow for much of a honeymoon, because you know who the person is. Congress and the Senate are usually willing to support his new Cabinet nominations.

Is it a time when there’s a big turnover in staff?

A lot of people leave, and a lot of new people come in. That’s true in particular with the Cabinet and the sub-Cabinet positions. There are a lot of political appointees who will leave, and some White House officials, as well.

Will the focus be on making new appointments?

Because of the fiscal cliff, that’s where the immediate attention is going to be—not on appointments, but dealing with that issue. That has to be dealt with in the lame-duck [period].

To what extent does the lame-duck period affect an incumbent who’s been reelected?

This one is particularly important because of the fiscal cliff. It gives him some opportunities because he has momentum from the election. There are [members of Congress] ending their careers, and they may be more willing to be part of the solution as they go out the door.

Who in the administration is required to tender a resignation as it goes from one term into the next?

Nobody. I was looking into recent two-term presidencies—Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. They asked people if they wanted to remain. If there are people who are problems, or if they aren’t good managers or are under investigation, those people tend to leave. There are others [who feel] four years is enough. Maybe half of the Cabinet is replaced by the beginning of the second term. In this case, because of all the work the [Obama administration] has to do on the fiscal cliff, it may be slower.

So we should expect to see turnover at some point?

A lot depends on how much turnover there was in the first term. In [Obama’s] case, there are 15 Cabinet departments, and 13 [of the appointees] have been there for the whole first term. Only Commerce and Defense changed. That was the same as [with] Bush.

Is it good to have holdovers into a second term?

It depends. The Clinton administration, when there were 14 Cabinet departments and no Homeland Security yet, had four of them who were there for the full eight years. People like [Health and Human Services Secretary] Donna Shalala were regarded as particularly effective.

Which Cabinet positions in the Obama administration are being most watched for holding over?

Because of the fiscal cliff and the importance of the economy the position that is particularly watched is Treasury, and State is going to be watched because Hillary [Clinton] has said she’s not going to stay a second term. That doesn’t mean she won’t stay for a while.

How do various issues play out between the first and second term?

When you look at most presidencies, one of the aspects of the second term is that the President spends more time on foreign policy issues. He gets more serious about Middle East negotiations, particularly at the end of the administration. That’s because he can act without support of the Congress on a lot of what he’s doing. In the second term you go after some of the domestic issues that are left over, that you couldn’t get to in the first term. Immigration is always a second-term issue. Immigration will be particularly important for the Republicans, because they did so poorly with Latinos in the election. Social Security ends up as a second-term issue.

What in the process of the presidency is unique to the second term?

He knows this is his last four years—they represent the end, and he has to make use of the first couple of them, because his ability to persuade wains as he moves closer to the end of his term. By the last year, the Washington community and the press corps are looking at who will be his successor.

Do politics become less important in the second term?

He’s chief of his party, and in that position he has to raise money for candidates and recruit candidates. The midterm Congressional elections are important. One of the aspects of the Democratic party, particularly in the Senate in this last election, was their ability to recruit good candidates. The Democrats were much better at recruiting candidates than the Republicans.

Does the fiscal cliff have to be resolved by the midterms?

Oh, yes. They have to get a handle on it quickly, because the financial community is very nervous about it and the stability of government policy-making as it relates to the economy. It’s not just that the administration and Congress need to satisfy their constituents; they need to satisfy Wall Street. They have to take serious steps to get the debt under control.

Does anything change for the First Lady in a second term?

I’d imagine she’ll stay pretty much on the same course, though she could be freer to do so if she wants to add on other issues.

*She’s also my sister-in-law, but that didn’t seem relevant when weighed against the chance to tap into her expertise.

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