November 25th, 2008
There’s an old adage about the importance of decisiveness in a crisis: one bad general is better than two good generals. Barack Obama was implicitly referring to this when he said that the US has only one president at any time. But the problem with the long presidential transition is that there could be no de facto president as the outgoing president’s authority diminishes while the president-elect has not yet taken power.
In the economic crisis we are now experiencing, as Paul Krugman pointed out in his column last Friday, a prolonged power vacuum – and nine weeks is a long time – could be disastrous. Failure by government to avert bankruptcies of major firms could have dire long-lasting consequences.
President-elect Obama’s announcement of a major economic stimulus package on YouTube last Saturday (another first in his use of new media) and his presentation of the economic team on Monday are important steps to show the directions economic policy will take after January 20. In addition, having the new team in place now will give the current team someone to go to shape the response to any breaking crises over the next nine weeks.
(While President-elect Obama was doing the important work, President Bush was “busy” representing the US at the APEC Summit, in which member nations resolved not to erect trade barriers for the next twelve months. Free trade in our time?)
The fundamental question this year’s awkward transition brings to mind is how it could be done better. New York Times columnist Gail Collins suggested last Saturday that Bush and Cheney resign immediately, to be replaced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as President until January 20. She could then defer to Obama until he officially takes office. That occurred to me a month ago, and indeed I thought of posting right after the election under the title “why Bush and Cheney should resign immediately,” but rejected it as a bit too fanciful. Well maybe it’s not.
Here are two suggestions for the future. There is currently a lame duck Congress in place, in which some of the legislators making key decisions about the economic crisis are people whom the voters have just repudiated. By what right? The logic of democratic legitimacy dictates that the new Congress take office as soon as it is elected, rather than in early January. I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but it doesn’t seem to me this would require an amendment.
Second, instead of a fixed inauguration day of January 20, have an inauguration period, say from December 1 to January 20, with the choice of an exact day at the discretion of the President-elect. If s(he) believes the nation is in crisis and has a team in place, then s(he) can take the oath of office early in the period and get started. Taking office early would mean less elaborate inaugural festivities, which would certainly be in keeping with the times. This change would require a constitutional amendment, no easy thing. But this year is showing us that the presidential transition process is broken, and Americans should be devoting serious thought to fixing it.