The stratospheric polar vortex is weaker in the easterly phase of the quasi-biennial oscillation (QBO-E) than in the westerly phase (QBO-W), but the mechanism behind the QBO’s influence is not well understood. The composite difference of the atmospheric state between QBO-E and QBO-W is found to closely resemble the structure of the northern annular mode, the leading empirical orthogonal function of stratospheric variability, including its wave components. Studies of dynamical systems indicate that many different forcings could give rise to this response, and therefore this composite difference does not provide much information about the forcing mechanism. It is argued that the full transient response of a system to an applied forcing is likely to be much more informative about the dynamics of the forcing mechanism, especially the response on time scales shorter than the dynamical time scale, which is about a week for vortex variability. It is shown that the transient response of the vortex to forcing by the QBO in a general circulation model is consistent with the proposed mechanism of Holton and Tan, indicating that this mechanism has a role in the QBO modulation of vortex strength, in contrast to the conclusions of several recent studies. This novel approach of examining the transient response to a forcing on short time scales may be useful in various other outstanding problems.