Transition blues

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I’m reading Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment, which goes into the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in 1933. Alter in particular looks at the interregnum between the November election and the inauguration on March 5, the same date as every president was sworn in from 1789 to 1933.

Waiting four months to change administrations after a national election was a leftover from an earlier era, when it took months to communicate election results and make plans for a new administration, but as communications improved, and the need for a long interregnum declined, it became more and more of a problem, as lame duck presidents struggled to continue to serve while the new president-elect slowly took over the levers of power.

This particularly became a crisis following the 1932 election, as the economic crisis continued to worsen, yet disagreements between Hoover and Roosevelt crippled the ability of the government to do anything. It was worsened due to the spilling over of the Hoover-Roosevelt contest in the 1932 election. Despite losing decisively, Hoover was still determined to defeat Roosevelt by humiliating him and managing to tar him with his poor reputation while using Roosevelt’s electoral victory as a shield to achieve bipartisan policies. While the crisis is much worse than the current economic crisis, there are a lot of parallels with the current interregnum. Imagine how much worse it would be if the transition were to continue for two more months. Alter makes it clear, however, that unlike Obama, there were low expectations of FDR’s ability and plans.

The 1932 election was the last to be followed by a March 5 inauguration. A constitutional amendment passed in 1932 was ratified in the next term and implemented in time for the 1936 election, and FDR’s second inauguration was the first to be held on January 20.

Communications have advanced much further since 1932, and the day-to-day responsibilities of the presidency have increased, which must make us consider whether it is really necessary to delay the swearing in of a new president until January 20. After all, Westminster democracies like Australia and the UK tend to have a new government in place within a week of an election result becoming clear.

Of course, there are barriers in the US system to speeding up a peaceful transition of power to allow for an inauguration in, say, mid-December. The biggest problem is the US system of electoral regulation, which gives responsibility to local levels of government and gives lots of room for litigation and recounting. A simpler system of uniform elections conducted by a federal electoral commission exclusively would leave much less room for litigation and a speedier election resolution. For example, the Bush v Gore decision was handed down on December 12, 2000, which would have given Bush practically no time to construct an administration if the inauguration was speeded up. On the other hand, an election such as this is a rare occurrence, and it doesn’t seem necessary to postpone the inauguration in a clearcut case like 2008 because of the rare ultra-close election.

The US federal government also has a very different nature of bureaucracy from the traditional concept of the independent professional civil service in the Westminster system of government. Many more positions in much deeper positions within the federal bureaucracy are considered partisan positions, which would depend on the outcome of the election. Rather than simply appointing a few dozen ministers and parliamentary secretary, the incoming Obama administration is in the process of appointing thousands of Democrats to positions like Assistant Secretary roles and the US Attorneys, who are all members of the President’s party.

In addition, the system of parliamentary democracy has evolved the effective mechanism of the shadow cabinet, meaning that less time is needed to allocate portfolios to members of the cabinet. Obama had a much wider field of potential cabinet secretaries than Prime Minister Rudd had, and he did not have experience with these people in the way that Rudd had with his then-shadow ministers.

While these are all issues, it seems entirely possible that, in this modern age of communication, with improved streamlining of electoral processes and good internal planning, the period between election and inauguration could be dramatically shortened.

Hopefully, if I can be awake, I’ll be liveblogging the Inauguration ceremony. It will begin at 11:30am EST, which is 3:30am Wednesday AEST. President-elect Obama will be sworn in at 4am Wednesday AEST, which will be followed by his inaugural address and a parade through Washington, D.C.

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