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‘Peaceful Transitions of Power’ panel examines the impact of presidential transitions on democracy

President Burwell moderated the discussion, featuring former presidential chiefs of staff and David Marchick, dean of the Kogod School of Business

American University President Sylvia Burwell led a panel discussion on the role of peaceful transitions of power in an effective democracy in Bender Arena on Oct. 8. The event concluded AU’s series “Conversations on Policy, Politics, and our American Democracy,” and featured former presidential Chiefs of Staff Joshua Bolton and John Podesta, as well as Kogod School of Business Dean David Marchick. 

The event’s discussion built on Marchick’s recent book “The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of America’s Presidential Transitions.” The conversation emphasized the importance of a smooth transition between administrations in setting up a successful presidency. 

Panelists agreed that cooperation between transition teams is key in protecting our democracy during what Marchick and Bolton described as a “vulnerable” time for the nation. 

Bolton, who served as chief of staff under George W. Bush, set the stage for much of the discussion with a vivid recount of his last full day as a deputy assistant to the president in January 1993. He said that after nearly all other staffers had left, he walked through the White House’s empty West Wing and was struck by how unguarded the transition time was.

“The place was empty and I thought [about] if the American people or any of our adversaries could see that the locus and the focus of government at this moment is absolutely empty,” Bolton said. “I thought, ‘what a vulnerable movement for our government.’” 

Podesta, who served as chief of staff under Bill Clinton and more recently as President Joe Biden’s senior advisor on clean energy innovation and implementation, described the experience of his first transition with President Clinton.  

“The machinery of government had to roll on. There could be no pause. When you take your  hand of the bible, the president is in charge,” Podesta said. “And being prepared for that, at the staff level, at the cabinet level, and understanding what the security issues facing the country are ... at that moment is really something that you can’t experience in university, in the private sector.”

The panelists also discussed what Podesta called a “break in history” for the Jan. 6 insurrection, and debated the “worst” transition of power in American history. Panelists examined the tensions between the incoming and outgoing administrations and how the events of Jan. 6 and claims of election fraud made cooperation difficult. 

Bolton described how Chris Liddell, deputy chief of staff under President Donald Trump “made sure that the Oval Office was never alerted to what [Liddell] was doing both before the election and after, to try to make sure it was a responsible, professional transition that the country needed.” 

Caron Martinez, the director for professionalism and communications for Kogod, said she appreciated the panelists’ focus on “history” and “best practices in transition” as well as how speakers addressed “what is likely a very diverse set of beliefs in our parents and our faculty” during the event.

Throughout the discussion, the panel underscored the importance of a smooth transition in setting up a successful four-year administration. When asked how citizens should act to aid in such a transition, Podesta said the most important thing for people to do is use and protect their right to vote, and remember the “struggle that people went through” to earn that right.  

As the discussion concluded, panelists were asked at what point they believed our democracy was most vulnerable. 

“We’re living in it,” Burwell said, stressing the importance of “information, knowledge and fact” in protecting governmental institutions. 

 Hosts Sara Winick and Sydney Hsu introduce themselves and talk about their favorite TV shows. This episode includes fun facts, recommendations and personal connections. 

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