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The Awkward Interval
Our antiquated elective system gives an outgoing President or congressman egregious opportunity for farewells—and mischief
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
In recent years Congress has given passing consideration to various proposals for further shortening the interval between the election and the inauguration. Most of these have been mixed up with plans for abolishing or changing the basis of voting in the Electoral College, plans which have such potentiality for redistribution of political power in the nation that Congress has been unable or unwilling to act. Yet even if the electoral vote mechanism were retained, modern conditions of communication and transportation would make it technically possible to install a President ten days after the popular votes were cast. Most of the proposals have been a little more cautious, allowing generally a month for the settling of electoral contests and for the President-elect to prepare himself. One of the more sensible of these proposals calls for moving Election Day up to early October, beginning congressional terms in early November, and inaugurating the President a week later—a scheme that would make for better adjustment both to the necessities of the government’s fiscal-year cycle and to the schedules of travel, school terms, and vacations that prevail in the United States.
Yet despite their theoretical desirability and technical feasibility, proposals to chop the awkward interval to a month or less come up against a couple of practical realities of politics and human affairs. First (and less important) is that it takes an outgoing administration a few weeks to wind up loose ends and prepare to transfer responsibilities to other hands; the alternative is to pass a great deal of untidy and unfinished business on to successors who will not be able to deal with it as effectively as the outgoing group. More important is the fact that, unlike the British, the American political party system does not keep a shadow cabinet organized and waiting to put longagreed-on policies into effect on short notice if the electoral decision is favorable. An American President-elect has to collect his men from disparate fields, many of them outside active politics, and together they must inform themselves, learn to co-operate, and negotiate toward policies that will be both practical and politically acceptable. Pushing a new President and his administration into official responsibility prematurely, before they are properly informed and organized, might hold more dangers for the nation than the custodianship of a lame duck.
In 1948 Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who confidently expected to win the Presidency, began making visible preparations during the campaign and was reported (although he never admitted it) to have already selected a Cabinet. After Truman’s upset victory, Dewey was razzed for his premature planning, and it has since become an item of American political lore that the candidate must not appear so overconfident or presumptuous. Nevertheless, John Kennedy in 1960 did make some quiet and limited preparations during the campaign that later served him well: on the day after his election he was able to announce that Clark Clifford was handling transitional relationships with the Eisenhower administration and that Professor Richard Neustadt was working on organization of a White House staff. Kennedy’s famous “talent scout” operation was in high gear shortly thereafter. There is reason to hope that both the Democratic and the Republican candidates in this year’s election already have lists of potential key assistants, in their minds if not in their pockets. Even without basic reforms in the American party system, such forehandedness by candidates can and no doubt will be intensified in future years.
Since Hoover, we have not had a President directly rejected for re-election. Like Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman retired voluntarily in a year when his prospects were not good, and Dwight D. Eisenhower came up against the two-term limitation on the Presidency enacted by the Twenty-second Amendment. Both Truman and Eisenhower managed their departures in good form and made serious efforts to preserve continuity in the effectiveness of the Presidency. Yet, although neither suffered as much as Hoover, each experienced what might be identified as the lame-duck syndrome—loss of power in the administrative extremities, a feeling of futility in foreign relations, an irresistible urge to push ahead with projects that could not possibly succeed, and wistful hopes that his designated successor would step forward to defend his positions.
Truman, for example, was proud of his efforts to achieve an orderly transition, and on the basis of this he presumed to give Dutch-uncle lectures to Eisenhower, who had just won in an electoral landslide. Although Truman insisted that he remained fully responsible for conducting the nation’s affairs until January 20, he put pressure on Eisenhower to support the administration’s position on a sticky point in the armistice negotiations then going on with North Korea. Again, while he knew Eisenhower had promised to give title to the disputed offshore oil lands to the states, Truman defiantly signed an eleventh-hour executive order proclaiming the tidelands as naval petroleum reserves in an open reminder to the Republicans of the old scandals of Teapot Dome. (The order was revoked by the new Republican Congress.)