Lesson Plan: Learning from Previous Presidential Transitions

Historical Presidential Transitions

Barbara Perry, Presidential Studies Director at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, talked about the best and worst presidential transitions.


This lesson has students explore the challenges that incoming administrations face during presidential transitions. Students will hear from historians and from White House staff to learn about previous presidential transitions and how the administrations worked together. With this information, students will develop a list of best practices that can be used during these transitions.


  • WARM-UP:

    Pose the following question to students before beginning class.

    • What are the responsibilities of a president?

    Review the students’ answers to the warm-up question. Address any misconceptions about what presidents do.

    Introduce the concept of a presidential transition by having students view the following video clip and answer each question. Students can access all of the video clips and activities using the handout.

    Handout: Presidential Transitions (Google Doc)

    Digital Slides: Presidential Transitions (Google Slides)

  • Video Clip 1: Historical Presidential Transitions (4:21)

    • What is meant by a presidential transition?

    • How has the size of government and the federal bureaucracy grown since the Franklin Roosevelt administration? How does this impact presidential transitions?

    • Why does Ms. Perry describe the Buchanan-Lincoln transition in 1861 as the worst presidential transition?

    • What actions did President Lincoln take during the 1861 transition?

    • Why does Ms. Perry describe the Reagan-Bush transition in 1989 as the best presidential transition?

    • What actions and factors enabled the 1989 transition to be so successful?

    • What actions must a new presidential administration take during their transition into office?

    • Based on this, explain the challenges that all new administrations face.

    After introducing the concept of presidential transitions, have the students explore the challenges that incoming presidents face and actions that outgoing and incoming administrations can take to address these challenges.

    Using the chart on the handout or Google Slides presentation and the video clips below, students will make a list of challenges that incoming presidents must address and examples of successful strategies from past transitions. Students can also use the questions associated with video clip to guide them as they watch.

    Handout: Presidential Transitions (Google Doc)

    Digital Slides: Presidential Transitions (Google Slides)


    Using their notes from the video clips, students will develop a list of five best practices that should be used during presidential transitions. Once developing this list, students can share their top ideas with the class. As a class, students can discuss and vote on the best ideas to use during presidential transitions.

    For each best practice, they should address the following:

    • Summary of the best practice.

    • When/if it has been used during previous transitions.

    • Benefits of this best practice.

    As an exit slip, answer the following question:

    • Why is it important to the United States to have a successful transition of power to a new president?

    Be a Presidential Transition Manager- Using information from the Center for Presidential Transition’s Presidential Transition Guide and the information for the video clips, imagine that you have just been selected as a president-elect’s transition manager. Your job is to make a detailed plan for transitioning the new administration into the White House. Identify and explain all the tasks that you will need to complete before January 20 and develop a calendar for when these tasks need to be done.


    • What role does Congress play in ensuring successful presidential transitions?

    • How have national crises impacted presidential transitions in the past?

    • What unique challenges might COVID-19 present during the upcoming presidential transition?

    • What challenges do presidents face when reelected to a second term?

Additional Resources


  • 2008 Financial Crisis
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Bipartisan
  • Bush V. Gore
  • Cabinet
  • Campaign
  • Chief Of Staff
  • Confirmation
  • Crisis
  • Cybersecurity
  • Ebola
  • Education Reform
  • Federal Bureaucracy
  • George H. W. Bush
  • Gulf War
  • Homeland Security
  • Inauguration
  • Infectious Disease
  • James Buchanan
  • National Security
  • No Child Left Behind
  • Pandemic
  • President-elect
  • Presidential Transition
  • Presidential Transitions
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Sitting Vice President
  • Statute
  • Tabletop Exercise
  • Team Of Rivals
  • Transition Act
  • Walk-throughs
  • White House Staff


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