Why a slower start can benefit a new president

Why a slower start can benefit a new president
© Getty Images

It is hard to think of Joe BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia  Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE as a novice. After arriving in Washington as the sixth-youngest senator in U.S. history in 1973, Biden remained there for almost five decades, becoming the oldest president ever elected in 2020. The time in between included eight consequential years as the ultimate under-study: vice president to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Biden administration breaks down climate finance roadmap Pelosi hilariously scolds media for not 'selling' .5T spending bill: 'Do a better job' MORE. These metrics demonstrate that few people have risen to the presidency better prepared than Biden. And yet, when he took the oath of office in January, he had exactly as much experience exercising presidential powers as the most inexperienced of his predecessors: none. 

For Richard Neustadt, who was a respected 20th century student of the presidency, this was a sobering, even worrisome, reality. Each new administration comes into office with high hopes but confronting a uniquely perilous environment, for which there is no wholly effective preparation. Biden was thus, predictably, susceptible to error. 

Neustadt himself bore scars from his own close encounter with the presidential learning curve, what he later termed “the hazards of transition.” He, along with Democrat Clark Clifford, had led John F. Kennedy’s formal transition operation in 1960-61. Yet none of their meticulous planning and expert guidance was sufficient to help JFK avoid a colossal mistake just months into his presidency by deciding to back an invasion of the Bay of Pigs.  


Neustadt subsequently devoted a substantial portion of his career to puzzling over this recurring problem, watching almost every president make mistakes while fully transitioning into the office. After surveying a broad span of presidential history, he concluded that first-year errors are a natural outgrowth of two commonplace features of every new administration: ignorance and hopefulness (the latter, unfortunately, “tinged with arrogance”). That combination is a recipe for trouble.   

Nobody comes into the presidency knowing exactly what the pressures there are like, or how best to wield the levers of power across the wide range of issues the president must confront. More problematic, new presidents usually don’t know what they don’t know. And their ignorance is idiosyncratic. “For JFK, the mystery was executive operations. For [Lyndon] Johnson it was foreign governments. For [Richard] Nixon it was evidently eastern journalists and liberal Democrats,” Neustadt wrote in his book, “Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents.” 

For Biden? Perhaps it was the true state of the Afghan military. Or perhaps a blind spot to American tolerance for the inevitable pains of withdrawal from there. Another possibility is more exculpatory: the disruptions of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Hackers are making big money MORE. Historians are only beginning the process of measuring the depth and breadth of Trump’s impact on American institutions and the role of America’s leadership in the world. For Biden, then, the mystery may have been how corrosive Trump’s leadership was in undermining confidence abroad. Actions that might have been taken with a predictable outcome when Biden was vice president became, in a new, post-Trumpian world, unpredictable — to tragic effect. 

Arrogant hopefulness is the commonplace product of historic success: All presidents have beaten overwhelming odds to claim the White House. Victory begets a spirit of invincibility. Paired with a dullness to the full dimensions of peril attendant to any presidential decision, the early months of an administration are riddled with opportunities to stumble. 

Gamblers know that hot streaks stimulate risky behavior. So, too, do winning presidential campaigns. Biden saw withdrawal from Afghanistan as the right thing to do. Difficulties thus would be met with resolution — the same tenacity that turned around his successful nomination fight in South Carolina. 

So, what did Neustadt suggest for avoiding these inevitable traps of transition? Certainly not better staffing; those supporting a new president are equally prone to ignorance and arrogance. Plus, they usually require a year or two of working together before they can jell into an effective team. 

Instead, Neustadt recommended a strategy for taking advantage of the learning curve: postponement. Presidents should make a purposive choice to delay complex initiatives — especially the novel ones — until they can be sure that they and those around them are fully cognizant of the evolved complexities of their environment, and not enchanted with their own wisdom or destiny. 

Neustadt knew that postponement would not be easy. “Slow starts are not in fashion” at the White House, he wrote, where every incoming administration is immediately on the clock. The urge to get politically difficult matters dealt with and off the agenda before the congressional midterms is forever present. But the costs of erring early can be exceedingly high — often unnecessarily so. Only on-the-job experience can help presidents avoid the kinds of unforced errors that haunted John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE and now, Joe Biden. 

“Transitions are not forever,” Neustadt concluded in his book. “[I]gnorance wears off, [and] hopefulness cools down.” For any White House concentrating solely on the opportunities for rapid wins, then, he urged a recalculation. Unless early action is “impelled by sheer necessity … it should be worth a forfeit of presumptive gains to skirt the losses lurking where one’s ignorance and hopefulness combine.” 

That hard calculus has just been re-learned, 60 years after the Bay of Pigs. 

Russell Riley is the co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. An authority on the contemporary presidency, he has logged more than 1,500 hours of confidential interviews with senior members of the White House staff, Cabinet officers and foreign leaders dating to the Carter and Reagan administrations.