3-Minute Civics: The importance of smooth presidential transitions

For the Monitor
Published: 11/22/2020 6:30:20 AM
Modified: 11/22/2020 6:30:04 AM

My last column (Sunday Monitor Forum, Sept. 27) gave a nod to the idea that impartial, nonpolitical medical experts should be enlisted to provide a check on the health of the executive – namely, president’s capacity to serve.

Having avoided the ever-slim likelihood of the 25th Amendment being invoked, let’s turn our attention to where we find ourselves today: the in-between period of time following an election and before an inauguration, when the transfer of power unfolds.

Lately I’ve wondered: What do people outside the headlines, those who study this stuff for a living, say needs to happen in order for our government to serve our interests once power is transferred?

Make no mistake, presidential transitions are a big deal. The process, as outlined by the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, calls for a White House Transition Coordinating Council and an Agency Transitions Directors Council, with a Federal Transition Coordinator to sync planning across the federal bureaucracy, according to the Center for Presidential Transitions.

Presidential transitions are costly, too. In fact, according to the center, Congress appropriated more than $9.6 million for it in the 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act, and President Trump requested a little more than that for fiscal year 2021 even though when incumbents are re-elected “funds for post-election transition activities are returned to the Treasury.”

It’s money well spent, Congress declared in passing the 1963 law, for “any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people.”

President-elect Joe Biden recently offered an updated COVID-19 version of the sentiment, saying that unless President Donald Trump cuts him in on what’s happening to handle the pandemic, “more people may die if we don’t coordinate.”

Hyperbole, mere malarkey, you say? Not necessarily, according to the authors of “Transitions In Crisis,” a report from the presidential research hub Miller Center located at the University of Virginia. “Come January 20th,” when presidents are sworn in, “fresh starts and fresh stumbles are possible,” they write. “During crises, the consequences of failure are even more stark.”

The report’s authors did their homework, examining five elections when the results were “unknown, doubted, or challenged” when the Electoral College met and five presidential transitions that unfolded amidst economic hardship. Their takeaways?

New presidents need to build an “experienced and agile team,” composed of “ideological and regional diversity,” and of “market experts and savvy political players.” Second, new presidents need to be ready to act in sync with their ambition, the choices being long-term legislative change or executive action in the here and now. “Will they,” the report asks, “seek to address deep structural deformities, or will they focus their efforts on the current crisis?”

After that, authors David Marchick and William Antholis urge new presidents to embrace career governmental officials as a “stabilizing force” given their ability to “guide a new or elected administration on what can work and what cannot.” To that end, they stress that presidents need to be “mindful of the political limits and consequences” of the times they inherit. “Even in economic crises,” they write, “politics is the art of the possible,” and “the president must literally be ready to make a deal” – and not just with Congress but Wall Street and labor and social groups.

Perhaps Biden – having served eight years as second-in-command in an administration that the report’s authors say very much followed the blueprint for transition success – is well suited to make the most of these days in-between despite the lack of case-closed national solidarity following the election.

But there’s one thing Biden, unlike his predecessors, will have to confront that the report didn’t mention: Do any of these historical markers matter when reality increasingly seems to be less a product of unbiased evidence and reason and more a construct of what warring political tribes choose, or need, to believe?

In college I had a professor who said, “There is no truth – just what the most number of people believe.” If that’s true, the work ahead runs deeper than a new president’s first 100 days.

(Adam Krauss teaches social studies at Exeter High School.)


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