Two weeks after the 2008 election, George W. Bush’s family gave Barack Obama’s family a tour of their new home, the White House. It was part of a long American tradition, of the outgoing president’s family meeting with the incoming family. Just as the Clintons had done for the Bushes eight years before, and the Bushes had done for the Clintons eight years before that. It’s a symbolic start to the beginning of the presidential transition, where the current president meets with the president-elect, and, importantly, helps the new administration into their new positions, ensuring a smooth transfer of power.
What is the Presidential transition process?
The presidential transition usually starts right after Election Day, in November, and it ends when the new president is inaugurated, in late January. But this year, President Trump didn’t allow it to start until three weeks after the election.
History of a President
Trump is not the first outgoing president to be uncooperative. In 1932, President Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a landslide. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and Roosevelt had campaigned on his “New Deal” ideas. But Hoover didn’t like those ideas. And he used the transition period to keep FDR from getting started on them. At the time, this gap was even longer.
Why it takes two and half months for new president to swear in?
The Constitution, written in the 1700s, had set it at around four months. After FDR’s election, it was shortened, to the current two and a half months. That’s still pretty long. But the modern US, with its expansive federal government, has found that time period useful. The federal government is kind of like this huge, massive, big ship, that takes a lot of direction to steer. When the US changes presidents, thousands of federal jobs have to be changed, too. And that changeover takes time. Those new hires need offices, government emails, and they need to get fully briefed on the ins and outs of how these departments run. And, most importantly, the president needs to get caught up on national security and intelligence.
On January 20th at noon, one administration is going to take over, and the threats that America faces are not necessarily going to respect that gap. In 2000, the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was so close that the winner wasn’t actually decided until mid-December. Which meant Bush’s transition had to happen pretty rapidly. Later, after the September 11th attacks, a government report said, “this loss of time hampered the new administration” in its readiness to deal with national security threats. They suggested that in the future, the transition should start as soon as possible.
Why there is a delay now?
But, unlike in 2000, the delay in transition in 2020 wasn’t because we didn’t know who won the election. When the media declares a winner on election night, it feels like a big moment. But it doesn’t actually carry any formal weight. It’s a projection. The election isn’t officially over until each state certifies their results, and the Electoral College votes, in mid-December.
But usually, by that point both presidential candidates have already acknowledged what the outcome will be. The loser usually concedes, and that sets off this presidential transition process where the outgoing administration helps to usher in the incoming administration. In 2020, we found out what happens when the outcome is widely agreed upon, but the loser doesn’t concede.
Before the transition can start, an office of the federal government has to give the go-ahead. The problem is, that relies on everyone agreeing who the president-elect is. Eventually, after several key states certified their results, Trump didn’t concede, but he did allow the transition to begin. Without actually referring to Biden as the president-elect.
This gap between presidents feels long. But it’s necessary to keep America’s government running. And for the incoming Biden administration, it’s going to be a lot shorter. And it shows that our tradition of a smooth transfer of power is just that — a tradition. Not a rule.