The Awkward Interval

PrintPrintEmailEmail

During Eisenhower’s last year in the White House, he managed to defend his domestic policy by threatening or actually exercising the veto, but he found himself at a standstill in foreign relations. After the U-2 affair, Khrushchev broke up a summit conference at Paris and sat down to wait for the next President. He suffered the further humiliation of having to call off a trip to Japan after he was already on the way: the prospect of his visit was causing civil disorder in Tokyo. After Kennedy had been elected, Eisenhower became concerned about the outflow of gold from the United States and sent the Secretary of the Treasury on a well-publicized mission to Germany in an effort to persuade the Germans to bear some of the expense of maintaining American troops there. Before he left, the Secretary sought Kennedy’s blessing for the mission. Kennedy fobbed him off on a subordinate and avoided any commitment. The Germans, of course, proved to be uninterested in dealing with an outgoing administration on so touchy a matter.

Such lame-duckish behavior is easy enough to criticize after the fact, but there remains a serious dilemma: for a period of ten weeks the President is responsible but cannot lead; the President-elect, on the other hand, has influence but neither responsibility nor access to the levers of policy execution. Unfortunately, foreign and domestic crises have no regard for the electoral calendar. Responsible conduct by the outgoing President, rapid preparations by the President-elect, and sensible understandings between incoming and outgoing regimes can help guard the nation—but only drastic shortening could alleviate the awkward interval.