As soon as Bill Clinton won the 1992 election he made a serious blunder — he failed to name a White House chief of staff right away. In fact, he waited until December to name longtime friend Mack McLarty chief of staff and until January to pick his senior advisors. Clinton instead focused on choosing his cabinet and figuring out how to boost the economy. As a result, his inexperienced staff were still trying to get organized during their first one hundred days in office. The West Wing got bogged down in side issues such as gays in the military. The administration didn’t gain its footing until the following year.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith. ©2009 Endeavors magazine.

“Everyone recognizes Clinton’s as one of the absolute worst White House transitions ever,” says political scientist Terry Sullivan. “There was an enormous amount of uncertainty and as a result there was a whole bunch of stuff screwed up in Clinton’s first term.”

This year, with an economy on the brink and two wars to win, the last thing we need is a wobbly West Wing. So it was no wonder most people praised Barack Obama for naming Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff two days after the election. Emanuel was an advisor to Bill Clinton for five years. He witnessed the sluggish start and served under all four Clinton chiefs of staff, including John Podesta, who served as codirector of the Obama-Biden transition.

Still, Sullivan says, even a good transition won’t be perfectly smooth for three major reasons. Few people under Emanuel know what it’s like to work in the White House. No one knows what it will be like to work in the Obama White House — not even Obama. And finally, each administration is so enormous that getting it up and running takes time the country simply doesn’t have.

Sullivan, who’s an expert on White House transitions, helps ease the growing pains.

In 1997, Sullivan led a group of scholars to create an archive on presidential transitions. All they wanted was a tool to help other researchers. But the project quickly grew into a public service to help public servants, new White House staffers in particular.

Sullivan and Towson University professor Martha Kumar started the White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan group of twenty-four scholars who have interviewed nearly every former White House chief of staff, press secretary, director of communications, and senior advisor since the Nixon Administration. The goal is to find out what each White House office is responsible for. What were their common mistakes and greatest successes? What were the most important lessons they learned, and what did they wish they had known before they entered the West Wing?

The resulting answers fill twelve thick binders that the scholars use to write twenty- to forty-page briefing memos. Sullivan and Kumar give the memos and binders to the president’s transition team, but anyone can read them at Kumar also has an office in the White House lower press office and is available to work with a transition team, as she did in 2000 when she met with Clay Johnson, President Bush’s transition director.

In 2003, Kumar and Sullivan included many of their findings in the book The White House World. And in 2004, Sullivan wrote Nerve Center: Lessons in Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff.

After an election the winners often say that working for a campaign is like being a minor league baseball player, and working in the West Wing will be like joining the major leagues — the fastball will be a little faster. Sullivan says the analogy is comforting, but flat wrong. “It’s more like going from a ninety-two-mile-per-hour fastball to trying to hit a twelve-hundred-mile-per-hour fastball. The scale of the American government is just so much bigger than any other job. And you’re under enormous pressure not to make mistakes.” But the pace of each job is so fast that staffers are bound to make mistakes, especially if their ideas of the job don’t comport with reality.

Despite this, typical incoming White House staff members won’t seek advice from their immediate predecessors, who are often members of the other political party. “So we talk to them,” Sullivan says.

In April 2008 both the Obama and McCain campaigns contacted Sullivan’s team, though conversations were kept under the radar so that the candidates wouldn’t be accused of measuring the White House drapes.

“A lot of times the campaigns ask, ‘What is our appropriate level of ignorance, and how do we get rid of it?’” Sullivan says. That’s a tough one because even former West Wingers have trouble explaining how the White House is organized, how it can or should be organized, the sort of confidence each job demands, and the sheer amount of work each job entails. It’s not a coincidence that, on average, a White House staffer burns out after sixteen months.

But Sullivan’s binders do help banish a good deal of ignorance.

In one example, Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said this about White House operations:

There’s always this kind of feeling when you bring in businessmen or women with experience that they’ll bring some professionalism to the organization. And they always fail because they think in line-staff structural relationships and in business they don’t have to worry about personal relationships because they have the power. They give orders; they take away your salary; they can fire you. And in the White House all those normal management techniques go out the window. Oftentimes you can’t fire people.

The chief of staff doesn’t set the salaries; the special assistant to the president for White House management and administration handles that. The chief of staff can’t fire people without the president’s say-so. A chief of staff who’s hired mid-term might not be able to bring in his or her own people despite the fact that, according to former chiefs of staff, loyalty to the chief is crucial to the success of the president’s agenda.

All this leads Sullivan to believe that Rahm Emanuel will be a good chief of staff. He knows how to be loyal to an agenda above his own. He and Obama won’t be afraid to hire people as smart or smarter than they are, Sullivan says. Emanuel knows what it’s like to work in the West Wing. He knows he might not last the entire first term, and he’ll know how to prepare for that. “Emanuel has a reputation for having sharp elbows,” Sullivan says. “The White House needs someone like this, especially in the first one hundred days and in times of crisis. So this is a classic time for a smart, pushy, demanding guy like Emanuel to step in.”

These qualities will help Emanuel push Obama’s agenda in the West Wing and on Capitol Hill. They will also help Emanuel manage Obama’s time, which Sullivan found won’t be as easy as one might think.

Every president’s appointment secretary keeps track of who enters the Oval Office, who calls, and when. Every time the president leaves a room a Secret Service agent whispers into his sleeve so that the service’s command center can track the president’s every move. These minute-by-minute accounts are made public at the National Archives. Sullivan scoured the records from Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush. In 2008, Sullivan wrote Presidential Work During the First Hundred Days, a report he handed over to Obama’s transition team and which is available at the White House Transition Project website.

“We did this research because campaigns have been building their plans for the first one hundred days in office based on what they think the president does,” Sullivan says. “And they’ve been doing an absolutely lousy job.” For example, they may think the president will talk to the congressional leadership two or three times during the first one hundred days in office, but the president actually sees them thirteen to sixteen times.

Sullivan says this is the kind of under-estimation that forces the president’s staff to cancel appointments, which can be a risky proposition depending on who’s being cancelled. Or the staff will make the president’s already long day much longer. Both possibilities add stress and tension to an already pressure-packed work environment.

According to Sullivan’s report, there are about ten people who see the president three or more times a week. There are just five people the president sees every day — the secretary of state, the chief of staff, the national security advisor, the vice president, and either the senior domestic policy advisor or the press secretary, but not both. Obama can change this formula, but no president will ever change the huge volume of people to be seen every day. Sullivan’s research shows that Obama can expect to see eight thousand people in his first one hundred days in office. That’s eighty people a day in meetings. This doesn’t include phone calls.

“Karl Rove calls this being a fire hydrant in a world of dogs,” Sullivan says.

Back in 1994, when Clinton’s West Wing was more like a dog pound and Republicans were gaining popularity, Clinton consulted with senior advisor Leon Panetta, who bluntly told the president that his White House lacked order. McLarty resigned and Clinton promoted Panetta, who immediately became the strong enforcer Clinton needed in order to push his agenda. That’s not to say everything was McLarty’s fault. The president does define the chief’s role to a certain extent, according to the former chiefs of staff Sullivan contacted. But Clinton was the quintessential policy wonk who liked to spend hours analyzing one issue. Sullivan says that Panetta told Clinton he couldn’t do that because there were simply too many other decisions he had to make.

Even before taking power, the president-elect has to learn how to make good decisions as quickly as possible. First he has to figure out how to fill eight thousand federal jobs, twelve hundred of which are policymakers, who must be nominated by the president and then approved by the Senate. Sullivan says this is where Obama probably took a cue from George W. Bush, who knew which posts he needed to fill first and how many he would likely be able to fill in a given amount of time. Sullivan says that Bush was planning all this well before the 2000 election. Given Obama’s sleek campaign organization and his choice of Emanuel as chief of staff, it looks like he’s keen to all this. Sullivan says Obama picked his core cabinet positions — secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, and the Attorney General — faster than any president in the past thirty years. Still, completing the transition will take much longer than anyone would like.

According to Sullivan, in the first one hundred days in office no president has been able to fill more than twenty-five of those twelve hundred jobs. We’re talking the State Department, the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Commerce, Education, Energy, Homeland Security — you name it. By the end of the first year, no president has been able to appoint more than 360 people.

There are several reasons for this slow pace. One is political infighting over the nominations; Senators sometimes try to hold up the appointment process, forcing the new president to nominate someone else for a job. There’s little anyone can do about this. Sullivan, though, wrote a report called Rescuing the Presidential Appointment Process which outlines several steps the government could take to help speed things up.

Right now, each nominee must divulge approximately twenty-eight hundred personal details in answering three hundred questions. Sullivan found so many repetitions in these inquiries that discarding them would reduce the burden on the nominee by 30 percent.

Congress could also amend the Presidential Transition Act of 2001 to give the national campaigns, or at least the president-elect, access to the personnel operation system that the White House uses to process all the information it gathers on nominees.

As it stands now, the new White House staff can’t process nominees until after Inauguration Day. “All this takes a surprisingly and frighteningly long time,” Sullivan says. “Mainly, the government is empty chairs for two years.”

Terry Sullivan, executive director of the White House Transition Project, is an associate professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences. Martha Kumar, professor of political science at Towson University, is the director of the White House Transition Project.