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Past Advisers Outline Challenges Of Presidential Transitions


Transitions between American presidents don't happen very often, and when they do, they force people to switch from theoretical promises of a campaign to the very real decisions of the new government. We're going to look back now at the last two presidential transitions with people who worked on them. David Axelrod was a senior adviser to President Obama and joins us from Chicago. Ari Fleischer was President George W. Bush's first press secretary and joins us from St. Petersburg, Fla. Welcome to both of you.



SHAPIRO: Ari Fleischer, your team had a much shorter timeline than most because of the 2000 recount. How did that affect this transition for you?

FLEISCHER: Well, ironically, in some ways, it made things easier because all the difficult personnel decisions we were going through we were able to start filtering names and shortening our list while no one was watching. All eyes were on Florida, but in the meanwhile, we were actually beginning a real transition effort. And so in that sense, it allowed us to do a lot of the preliminary work with no controversy and no criticism.

SHAPIRO: David Axelrod, the Obama campaign was known for Yes We Can and Change We Can Believe In. Was there one moment that it particularly hits you that we actually have to run the government now and that's a very different thing?

AXELROD: Well, we were confronted with that before we ever arrived because of the nature of the economy. I remember a meeting about mid-December - I think December 16 - when all the economic advisers who were incoming gathered and reported to the president-elect on the state of the economy. And it was a stunning presentation, and it was clear that, you know, we were going to be consumed by dealing with this economic crisis for the first weeks, months, perhaps years of the administration.

SHAPIRO: You know, it sounds like between the 2008 economic crisis and the 2000 Bush v. Gore recount, the Trump team almost has it easy compared to the experience you both went through.

FLEISCHER: (Laughter).

AXELROD: Yeah, except I don't know that they expected to win, which is a bit of a problem. And they changed out their transition team after the election so...

SHAPIRO: Getting rid of Chris Christie, you mean.

AXELROD: Yes, and many of the people who he had brought in. So in a sense, they were starting from scratch. But like everything with Donald Trump, this is a most unusual transition because a lot of this is playing out in public in a way that is unique in the annals of a presidential transition.

SHAPIRO: So when you get to the White House, does anybody give you an ID badge, a map, a guide book or is it just, like, good luck finding the bathroom?

AXELROD: (Laughter).

FLEISCHER: You know, Ari, I just remember it was enchanting. I had never been in the White House before beyond the West Wing Lobby. I had been there for congressional meetings. But those hallways beyond that lobby - I imagined what they could be like. And then on my first day where I got to go in and go to see my desk and see what it was really like, it was just this sense of amazement. And that's the rare air that's in the West Wing.

But I'll also tell you it wore off fast because you right away get hit by the pace of the place, the intensity, the pressure, the responsibilities. And so you can be walking between the cabinet room and the office of the press secretary and looking to your left to the briefing room and to the right down the hall to the chief of staff's office and the vice president's office and the grandeur of it all, and you just start to realize none of that matters. I've got a hard job to do.

SHAPIRO: David, did you have a what-on-Earth-am-I-doing-here moment or did your experience feel a lot like Ari's?

AXELROD: (Laughter) Many moments like that, Ari. But on the first day, I think one of the most memorable things that happened was that even though I had the office next to the Oval Office, I was late for the first senior staff meeting with the president and I...

SHAPIRO: Really?

AXELROD: ...Hustled in there and I grabbed the first open seat. And I saw Rahm Emanuel, who was the new chief of staff, gesturing with his head wildly, gesturing me out of the seat. And I realized I was sitting in the vice president's chair.


AXELROD: And I quickly jumped over to the couch where someone of my station belonged.

SHAPIRO: A lot of people have advice for the Trump team on how to run the country, what to do when they're in office. Can either of you offer advice purely based on the nuts and bolts of a transition that only someone who has been through this themselves would be able to offer?

FLEISCHER: Well, my advice to them would be operate like a no-huddle offense. You want to on January 20 have 10 plays already written up that you've done in the transition to guide your message from January 20 to January 31. They need to do that now. They need to be planning for that now because they're going to be drinking from so many fire hoses when they get into that Oval Office and the White House that if they don't have a play in mind for each day, that Monday, January 21, for example, is bipartisan day. We're going to meet with Democrats on the Hill. Tuesday is foreign policy day. We're going to have three phone calls with heads of state and give proper readouts. The next day, et cetera, et cetera - they want to have every one of those lined up ahead of time, otherwise they're going to hit the ground in too many different directions. They need focus.

SHAPIRO: Does watching the Trump team go through this make you both feel something closer to nostalgia or closer to PTSD?

AXELROD: I think even though we were entering in a time of crisis, there is such a sense of excitement and expectation about what you're about to embark on. In fact, Ari's old boss President Bush gave me the best advice on Inauguration Day in 2009 when he said you're in for the ride of your life. Just drink in every moment because it's going to go by faster than you think.


FLEISCHER: All nostalgia. You know, I remember the first Saturday I think I was in there working. Late afternoon, a Secret Service captain gave me a private tour of the entire White House. The White House movie theater I got to go see, a lot of the places below the White House that you get to go see, all these remarkable behind-the-scenes sites. There's a majesty to the White House. And when you get to go inside it, you get to be close to that majesty, and it's the tradition, it's the history of our country and our government. And that's what people about to go inside the White House will see for the first time for many of them.

AXELROD: I do want to share one story that speaks to the other elements of this job. The night before the inauguration, we were briefed - or the day before we were briefed by Homeland Security on a potential threat on the inaugural ceremonies, and I was asked very privately to prepare a note for the president, a - 60 seconds of remarks to disperse the crowd if it became necessary. And so I had all that night and the next morning this sense of foreboding, as well as excitement, and a realization of the grave responsibilities that this president and all those who were going to work for him, including me, were about to assume. And that was a sobering moment.

SHAPIRO: David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama, and Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, thanks to you both.

FLEISCHER: Thanks, Ari.

AXELROD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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