Ah, the transition period. Yes, these might just be the longest eleven weeks in our nation’s history, as our economy teeters on the brink and we fight two costly wars, and all anybody can talk about is who will be Obama’s deputy assistant chief of staff and what Todd Palin needed with $40,000 worth of snow-mobile jerseys.
If you can believe it, this tortuous limbo used to go on for even longer. The inauguration used to be in March, a relic of a time when technology and transportation simply didn’t allow newly elected representatives to take office immediately. By 1932, when the 20th amendment was proposed, many sensed that it was silly to wait four months for the popularly elected president to take office during a crisis, which the country was certainly experiencing at the time. But the amendment wasn’t ratified in time for Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural, and it was only in 1937 that he took the oath in January.
The 20th amendment embodied an important lesson that we would do well to remember and, perhaps, reapply: We need an electorally legitimate president to lead us through crises. And a two-month waiting period is barely better than a four-month one. Presidential candidates have already taken to setting up furtive transition teams during their campaigns. Are we really to believe that, if the lame-duck period were shortened to a few weeks, they wouldn’t be able to handle it? Maybe candidates should start naming Cabinet short-listers before Election Day, all the better to let voters know who will have the ear of the president. Maybe they should have something of a shadow government, ready to take power once given an electoral mandate. That might be better than having an actual government act without a mandate for several months.
Of course, the American government has become a lot more complex since 1932, owing in no small part to the actions of the president Americans elected that year. I’m sure that the people involved in executing the thorny transition are glad to have 11 weeks to do so. But that doesn’t mean the American people should indulge them. Our right to a legally and electorally legitimate president probably outweighs the costs to John Podesta and Rahm Emanuel.
This time around we’re going to have to abide by the system set up some 70 years ago. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Obama can or should take office before January 20. But when something big happens in the next two months, people should consider who deserves to be the decision-maker: the man we just elected to be the decision-maker, or the incumbent decider, who hasn’t received a vote since 2004 and currently holds lower approval ratings than Nixon during Watergate? And, if the former, then maybe it’s time to change the timeline. You know, for the next time around.