9 Things That Happen As Soon As a New President Takes Office

It's not all pomp and circumstance; the first 100 days set the tone for the rest of a presidency.

With so much emphasis placed on November presidential elections, it can be easy to forget that the successful candidate doesn’t officially take office until January 20 of the following year. Known as Inauguration Day, and full of pomp and circumstance, on January 20 the newly elected (or re-elected) president and vice president are sworn into office.

But the transition process unofficially starts back in November, as soon as the major news networks declare a winner in the presidential election—not based on the popular vote, but via a projection of who will ultimately win the necessary 270 votes in the Electoral College. The Electoral College vote takes place in mid-December, and then the election is certified by Congress in early January.

Meanwhile, the incoming administration isn’t relaxing after running a successful campaign: The rest of the calendar year and the first part of January are a constant stream of high-level briefings, strategizing, hiring White House staffers, and making Cabinet appointments—though the initial vetting process for those positions typically begins even before the election is decided. The incoming administration also typically devotes time to coming up with plans to address the most pressing issues in the country, which currently includes slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and creating an effective economic stimulus package. Find out 22 surprising presidential firsts.

One of the main reasons for this unofficial transition period is to ensure that the new administration will be able to hit the ground running on and after January 20. Here are nine things that happen as soon as a new president takes office.

Enacting presidential protocol

When the clock strikes noon on January 20th, there is a sequence of events immediately set in motion, starting with the expiration of the outgoing president’s nuclear codes. At the same time, the U.S. military transfers their allegiance from the incumbent president to the one who was recently elected. This is more than just symbolic: at that point, the military must refuse to carry out any orders from the former president, and any members who ignore this could be arrested and tried on charges of mutiny and sedition. Similarly, the Secret Service makes the switch to protecting the new president— although the outgoing president and their family do continue to receive protection from a small unit for the rest of their lives, one of the perks presidents get to keep after leaving office.

Riding their wave of support

When a new president is sworn in, it is the first and best opportunity to set the tone and direction for the rest of their term, John Whitehurst, a founding partner at BMWL & Partners political consulting firm tells Reader’s Digest. “During this ‘honeymoon period,’ their popularity tends to be high and their political support strong,” he explains. “Using this momentum, a new president sets the agenda, makes appointments for their administration, produces executive orders that change or create policy, and pushes forward a legislative agenda for Congress.” Want to learn more about the people who’ve held the highest office in the land? Check out these fascinating facts you didn’t know about U.S. presidents.

Assembling the team

Before anything else, a new administration’s top priority is assembling the team of people who will fill the roles in the executive office, according to Lindsey Cormack, PhD, a professor of political science at the Stevens Institute of Technology and the author of Congress and U.S. Veterans: From the GI Bill to the VA Crisis (Conflict and Today’s Congress). “Every new president has a slew of positions to fill, including some in the White House staff and executive office,” Cormack tells Reader’s Digest. Presidents have great discretion in their personnel choices, such as their chief of staff and national security adviser, while others appointed to positions, such as the heads of the different federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, have to undergo Senate approval, she explains. Here are 44 fascinating facts about America’s first ladies, too.

Vetting and seeking approval for appointees

Though the process of vetting potential appointees begins before the inauguration, it continues after the transition as well, as the field of candidates for the positions narrows. In total, the incoming administration has to fill approximately 4,000 political appointments—1,200 of which require Senate confirmation, ranging from the Surgeon General to the Ambassador to the United Nations, according to the Center for Presidential Transition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides information and resources for this aspect of the American political process. Those that go through the Senate first are discussed in meetings at the committee level, and then later in Senate hearings. For more presidential trivia, check out these 12 surprising facts about the White House you missed in history class.

Getting started on domestic policy

One of the most notable parts of a campaign for political office is the candidate communicating their top policy priorities to the electorate, and discussing plans for achieving them. But once a new president has been elected, there’s the expectation that the new administration will turn these campaign promises at least into the beginnings of political policy. According to Cormack, part of this process involves the new president and administration making contacts with the leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate to discuss potential legislation. Here are 12 famous presidential quotes that are actually fake.

Focusing on the first 100 days

If it seems as though you’ve been hearing a lot about the incoming administration’s first 100 days in office, it’s not your imagination, and comes with historical significance. “The first 100 days of any presidency is a symbolic time period in which a new president sets the tone for his or her administration,” Areva Martin, a civil rights attorney and political analyst for CNN tells Reader’s Digest. “Franklin D. Roosevelt popularized this time in 1933 when he took swift action to calm the nation’s crippling financial panic and began rolling out the programs that made up his New Deal, including 15 major pieces of legislation in the first 100 days. Roosevelt’s productivity became a standard against which future U.S. presidents would be measured.” While presidents do hold considerable power, here are a few examples of things no U.S. president is allowed to do in office.

Transitioning out of the transition

Traditionally, as soon as the projected winner of the election is announced by the major news networks, a new administration’s transition team springs into action, facilitating the countless moving pieces required to get a new president and vice president into office and ready to govern on January 20. Officially, though, the transition team doesn’t actually put things in motion until the General Services Administration (GSA) signs off on the election, verifying that there is a clear winner of the election, based on the procedure outlined in the U.S. Constitution. In 2020, that didn’t happen until late November because President Donald Trump refused to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden.

While its role in the process is crucial, the transition team itself is short-lived. Once the new administration is in operation, it must then shut down the transition team. Part of that involves preserving important documents that are of historical value, including plans outlining the nuts and bolts of one aspect of the transition (like a new administration’s strategy for responding to a public health crisis), and/or could be helpful to future transition teams, according to the Center for Presidential Transition. But are transitions always smooth? Here’s what happens when a president won’t leave office.

Getting started on foreign policy

An incoming presidential administration also typically comes with a new approach to international affairs. According to Cormack, a president who wishes to quickly change the tenor of the foreign policy—distinguishing it from the previous administration—may sign on to executive agreements with other countries early on in their term. For example, Jessica Yellin, a former CNN Chief White House Correspondent and current host of News Not Noise, predicts that the Biden-Harris administration will likely rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord, as well as unveil a new set of immigration policies in the first 100 days. Here are 13 surprisingly frugal habits of past presidents and their families.

Issuing executive orders

Although, as Cormack points out, executive orders are limited in scope, they are quick actions a new president can take shortly after taking office. Executive orders—though not considered legislation, requiring approval from Congress—have the effect of law. And while FDR (understandably) gets credit for having the most productive first 100 days in office thanks to the New Deal, modern presidents like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have also been heavy-handed when it comes to executive orders, according to a report from FiveThirtyEight. And it’s not only the first 100 days of a presidency that are stressful: check out these before-and-after photos showing how presidents have aged in office.

Sources:

  • John Whitehurst, a founding partner at BMWL & Partners political consulting firm
  • Lindsey Cormack, PhD, a professor of political science at the Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Areva Martin, a civil rights attorney and political analyst for CNN

Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.