Published for National Affairs, March 25, 2013

For decades, one common cliché of American campaign rhetoric has been the criticism that presidential aspirants are “measuring the drapes.” When news leaks that a candidate is contemplating his future cabinet, or readying a policy agenda for the first 100 days of his administration, such advance preparation is typically exploited by his opponent as evidence of unbecoming hubris. Our presidential contenders have thus had to tread very carefully, caught between two unpleasant choices: entering the Oval Office underprepared, or risking criticism for seeming to presume a victory not yet won.

This difficult balance was on my mind when, in July of 2012, I was invited to a meeting at the Washington headquarters of the Romney Readiness Project. Known inside the Romney campaign as R2P, the project (which I soon joined as director of domestic policy) was an all-out transition team, assigned to help Mitt Romney prepare for the early personnel and policy decisions he would face if he won in November. Although Romney had long since secured the needed delegates to clinch the Republican nomination, when I attended my first R2P meeting, the GOP convention was still six weeks away and the election was fully four months away. Wasn’t it much too soon to start transition planning?

As I quickly learned, however, the project was a function not of hubris but of a new federal law that will forever change the character of presidential transitions. In an effort to address precisely the impossible choice that presidential candidates face between seeming arrogant and being unprepared, Congress passed the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010. The law provides government support — in the form of office space, technology, vetting for security clearances, assistance from federal-agency staffs, and funding — to help presidential challengers begin transition efforts upon receiving their parties’ nominations. Previously, federal transition support had been available only after the election was over. The law thus moved the transition timetable up from November to summer, offering several more weeks of crucial preparation time.

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