Behind the scenes, Leavitt quietly prepares for White House transition
Politics • The effort moves forward separate from the campaign with the single goal of being ready on Day One.
Published: October 1, 2012 12:57PM
Updated: January 7, 2013 11:32PM
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File | The Associated Press Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah and Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Washington • When new presidents move into the White House, they don’t come alone, and they don’t come unprepared.

If Mitt Romney wins Nov. 6, he will have 75 days to move from the campaign trail to full-on governing mode, rolling out a team of White House staffers and Cabinet secretaries and laying out proposals for how the government should run under his administration.

“In this strange condition of a world we find ourselves in, you better have your secretary of Defense, secretary of State and secretary of Treasury in place five minutes after you say, ‘So help me God,’ ” says Tom Korologos, a native Utahn and former U.S. ambassador who worked on the transition for President Ronald Reagan and advised more recent incoming teams.

The transition process is a monster: Dozens of positions to fill immediately (many with must-have security clearances), policy and position papers needed at the ready as well as new executive orders to halt the previous administration’s actions and set the incoming one on its own path.

Leading the charge for Romney is former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a big-thinking confidant of the Republican presidential nominee now facing one of the most difficult tasks of his career.

Leavitt, who was secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, is heading up Romney’s “Readiness Project” from a Capitol Hill office and has already set out to identify the best people to take on top roles in a potential Romney presidency as well as work with Republican congressional leaders on what the administration might do once in office.

“It is very difficult,” Korologos says. “And it sets the tone, quite frankly, for your entire administration, on what you’re going to be doing for the next four years.”

Even with polls showing Romney’s campaign losing ground in key battleground states to President Barack Obama, Leavitt’s work continues and has recently picked up steam in advance of the election.

While in past elections, such early transition efforts by a candidate have been attacked as “measuring the drapes,” lessons learned from previous administration changes show the prep work is essential.

Ready from Day One • Hours before Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, Bush hosted him at the White House for the traditional pre-inauguration coffee.

Meanwhile, Bush’s top national security officials huddled with their counterparts from Obama’s soon-to-be administration in the Situation Room, gleaning bits and pieces about an al-Qaida-related terrorist threat to the millions of people assembled on the National Mall for the swearing-in.

The two groups worked side by side, receiving the latest intelligence from the FBI and CIA and plans to avert or deal with a potential catastrophe. The threat alert evaporated eventually, but led then-Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten to herald the cooperation between the two camps from different parties.

“At that moment I was proud of the way that we had managed to integrate the incoming folks into the management of a potential crisis,” Bolten told Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who heads up the Presidential Transition Project.

Some transitions have not gone off as well.

In the 1992 changeover, President-elect Bill Clinton was preoccupied with Cabinet appointees instead of selecting his White House staff, according to an assessment by John Burke, of the University of Vermont.

Clinton didn’t settle on a chief of staff until mid-December and other top aides were not offered jobs until a week before he took office, moves that Burke says likely hindered Clinton’s ability to initially turn campaign promises into actual proposals and handle an onslaught of tough decisions.

Federal legislation, along with policy ideas fronted by Kumar’s White House Transition Project and ideas thrown out by the Aspen Institute, have helped get transitions rolling much earlier in the campaign year.

Romney appears to be following that advice. He announced Leavitt’s role in early June and the former Utah governor’s been working in the background of the campaign since.

“Transition planning is very important because you have to be able to stand up a government quickly,” says Kumar, who works in the press room of the White House chronicling the ins and outs of an administration.

There are some 7,000 appointments a president can make, but a new president really just needs to focus on the top 100 in the transition period and make plans to get those who need Senate confirmation. Leavitt, Kumar says, is likely making lists of possible nominees, though those people probably won’t know for sure their names are on the list unless Romney wins.

Beyond picking top White House aides and settling on a Cabinet by late December, there are also a slew of policy decisions to plan. Obama, for example, signed two executive orders on his first full day in office, calling for a higher level of ethics rules and more transparency with government records.

“You’ve got to tee up what your early moves are going to be,” Kumar says. “You have legislative ones in the one hand and executive ones in the other.”

Then there’s the matter of getting rid of the past administration’s orders or those agency regulations that are in the works.

“The first thing is to stop anything in the pipeline,” Kumar says. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got a good hand on that.”

Leavitt, who was elected to three terms as Utah’s chief executive, worked on the federal level for five years during the Bush presidency, allowing Leavitt an insider’s view on how it all works. He also earned a reputation as governor for diving deep on policy issues.

“Leavitt is perfect for all this stuff because he brings an understanding of how an administration works, how a White House works and what the demands are of the job and what type of coordination you need,” says Kumar.

Not that it’s an easy job.

Forging ahead • Romney officials declined to comment on the transition project, a move likely meant to show the campaign’s focus on first getting elected.

Leavitt, by all accounts, though, is plodding ahead, working out of a C Street office on the House side of Capitol Hill. Recently, according to those familiar with the effort, Leavitt sat down with at least two Republican congressional leaders to discuss a potential legislative agenda for next year.

Leavitt moved to Washington earlier this summer to take on the effort, renting a home in the area with his wife, Jacalyn.

He has a team of nearly a dozen people working under him, including former World Bank President Robert Zoellick, former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent and Chris Liddell, former chief financial officer at General Motors.

Romney’s campaign can raise private funds to cover the cost of the transition planning and also gets money from the federal General Services Administration, which acts as a go-between for the transition effort.

Earlier this summer, the GSA helped organize a call between Leavitt and Obama’s chief of staff, Jack Lew, according to The New York Times.

Clay Johnson III, who headed Bush’s transition team, says Leavitt seems to be analyzing and applying lessons learned from past changeovers.

“The thing they appear to be focusing on is creating the capability for a President-elect Romney, if there is a President-elect Romney, to be able to put his team on the field significantly faster than previous presidents — twice as fast,” says Johnson, who has had occasional conversations with Leavitt about the process.

A classmate of Bush’s in prep school and in college, Johnson said in an interview that the transition game has changed dramatically since he alone was doing the work in 2000.

It’s not premature to do so, Johnson noted, because “bad guys” around the world would like to take advantage of any presidential handover, and Leavitt seems to have grasped how vital it is to be ready.

“If Romney is elected, because of Governor Leavitt’s work, his transition would be, I would suggest, more prepared for getting things done than any previous administration,” Johnson said. “If Mitt Romney is not elected president, a new standard will have been set for how viable presidential candidates should prepare.”

tburr@sltrib.com