US presidential transition: A glorious tradition in inglorious times

US presidential transition: A glorious tradition in inglorious times

On January 20, Joe Biden will have former presidents Barack Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton at his inauguration as America’s 46th president. But one man will be conspicuous by his absence—the outgoing president Donald Trump.

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  On January 20, when Joe Biden says these words, former presidents Barack Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton will join him at his inauguration as America’s 46th president....

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” 

On January 20, when Joe Biden says these words, former presidents Barack Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton will join him at his inauguration as America’s 46th president. But one man will be conspicuous by his absence (unless he changes his mind at the last minute)—the outgoing president Donald Trump.

Almost anything and everything to do with this year’s transition and inauguration of the new president is different. While some of it has to do with the debilitating pandemic that has ravaged America more than any other country, security protocols were dramatically scaled up after a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol on January 6.

A time-honoured tradition

Under normal circumstances, the inauguration of a new President and his taking the oath is watched by millions of Americans in person or glued to their TV sets. Scores of journalists run between the White House and Capitol Hill on a blustery morning trying to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. The permanent staff of the White House get busy with a hectic process for ‘transfer of families’.

The outgoing President and the First Lady—having exchanged their goodbyes and gifts—wait for the President-elect and the incoming First Lady to arrive at the White House for a quick exchange of pleasantries and a small conversation over a cup of coffee, cake or a small lunch and perhaps a tour of the complex, including the Oval Office.

Tradition also has it that the outgoing and incoming presidents ride together to the Capitol Hill for the swearing-in ceremony that’s followed by a speech by the new President. The former president, after attending the ceremonies, quietly leaves.

That traditional element will be missing as Trump has already announced he won’t be going to the inauguration on January 20.

In fact, he will be the first President in 152 years to miss the swearing-in of his successor. In the entire history of the United States, only three outgoing presidents—John Adams in 1801, John Quincy Adams in 1829 and Andrew Johnson in 1869—refused to attend their successors’ inaugurations.

Incidentally, both Johnson and Trump have another thing in common: the two of them are in the exclusive club of three Presidents (which includes Bill Clinton) to have been impeached. In fact, President Trump has the unique honour of being the only American President to have been impeached twice.

It is not as if anyone is losing sleep over this—President-elect Biden, after initially expressing hope that Trump would attend his inauguration, had something else to say after the January 6 riots. “It’s a good thing, him not showing up,” Biden said.

Why January

A January inauguration wasn’t always the case, though. The first swearing-in of President George Washington was on April 30, 1789. The date was shifted to March 4 in 1793 till 1933.

The four long months from the November election made sense at the time since it used to take time for votes from across the country to reach the capital. But things slowly started to change with modern advances, making it easier to count and report votes.

In 1937, through the 20th Amendment, it was advanced to January 20, with Franklin D Roosevelt having the honours of having his inauguration on both March 4 and January 20 in 1933 and 1937.

There is another slice of tradition attached to the inaugural festivities—the outgoing President leaves a small personal handwritten note to his successor, something that many presidents have cherished in spite of ideological differences and bitter political campaigns that may have preceded.

The note has always been signed off with a personal touch—like Ron (Ronald Reagan), George (George Herbert Walker Bush), Bill (Bill Clinton), GW (George W Bush), and BO (Barack Obama). In fact, historians and journalists still refer to the note that George HW Bush left for President Clinton. The tenor seemed not to reflect the hard-fought campaigning of 1992. “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you,” the senior Bush wrote.

Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, too, are seen as role models for a peaceful transition, not merely because of the professionalism with which they went about the business but on account of the personal attention they and their senior staffers paid to their successors.

In his memoir, A Promised Land, Obama showered praise on the 43rd President for making the transition a painless process: “Whether it was because of the respect for the institution, because of lessons learned from his father, bad memories of his own transition or just basic decency, President Bush would end up doing all he could to make the 11 weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly. I promised myself that when the time came I would treat my successor the same way.”

Obama followed the same tradition and greeted Trump in the White House on November 10, 2016. That was just two days after the election that resulted in Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton. However, Biden was not extended the same courtesy.

Why so much fuss

Presidential transitions are a serious business in the United States and much of it has to do with the way governance has evolved over the years. Getting access to office space and monetary allocation of some $ 10 million is only one aspect. It is also about the incoming team getting access to and processing an enormous amount of raw data on policy issues.

The Biden-Harris team is not worried about the career bureaucrats in the major departments. The incoming President and the Vice-President will also have to know about the 4,000 political appointees that are out there, in what departments and what positions. And about one-fourth of these appointees would require Senate confirmation.

The new President may have been a former Vice-President for eight years, but his situation is still similar to that of President Obama when he was handed the reins in 2009. At that time, the Bush presidency was facing one of its worst nightmares—the economic crisis of 2008. Fortunately, for Obama, Bush not only personally kept him abreast of what was going on till the very end, but made sure every one of his senior officials was available for consultations.

The process of transition is even more critical for the Biden-Harris team as it comes to office when America has already entered another worst phase in the coronavirus pandemic.

Given the shocking turn of events and the violence to block Biden’s inauguration, it is only gratifying to see that the theme for this year’s inauguration is going to be “America United”. In a strong show of bipartisanship, the inaugural ceremonies at Capitol Hill will see the participation of former Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama as well their wives. And breaking away from Trump’s bizarre notion of patriotism, Vice-President Mike Pence will be attending the ceremonies along with his wife.

In fact, the outgoing Vice-President has already called his soon-to-be successor Harris and offered his belated cooperation in the transition of power.

In the past, even the losing Presidential candidates have attended the inaugural ceremony—Senator Hillary Clinton did in 2017 and Vice-President Al Gore was present in 2001.

A ride to a new direction

Originally, it was planned that Biden would take the Amtrak train from his hometown in Delaware to Union Station in Washington D.C.—something that he has been doing for 36 years during his Senate service and apparently logging in more than 2 million miles. However, this time, the Secret Service will escort the new President and the First Lady straight to Capitol Hill since the customary drive-in to the White House for coffee followed by a joint limousine ride with Trump are unlikely to take place.

The presidential transition, nevertheless, will take place the moment the incoming president completes the oath. As things stand, after this, Biden will give his inaugural address in which he is expected to call for the ‘healing of America’ in the wake of all that has taken place, especially over the last four years.

Following this, the President and Vice-President will lay a wreath and complete the Pass in Review inspection of troops at the Capitol. Unlike in the past, wherein Presidents and their spouses have walked down the Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House—except on occasions when weather conditions had determined otherwise—the Bidens will be escorted by a contingent drawn from every branch of the military with all the parade fanfare this time around reduced to the virtual mode.

However, there will be a short period of time prior to the formal swearing-in of Biden that Trump will still be the President when he will be shuttling between Marine One from the White House to Andrews Base in Maryland for his last Air Force One trip to Florida to begin his post-presidential life.

An intriguing part of the presidential transition is the transfer of control authority over the US nuclear arsenal. This is one aspect that aroused special interest following concerns over Trump’s mental state and his power to unleash a nuclear attack.

What happens to the Nuclear Code, or how does the aide who stands right behind the President holding a rather large briefcase—said to be cuffed to his hand—do anything different this time?

In normal circumstances, this briefcase would have effortlessly passed on to another aide who will be with the new President.

The briefcase is called the ‘nuclear football’ and does not contain any button to let loose thousands of nukes at one go. Rather it has only communication codes and options for a nuclear showdown.

In addition to the ‘football’, Presidents carry on them personally something called a ‘biscuit’, a manual of authentication codes.

But the Pentagon does not seem to be losing sleep over any of this hoopla on Trump holding on to the football or the biscuit!

“We war game this stuff, and we practice it ad nauseam for years and years. There are systems in place to make sure that happens instantaneously. There won’t be any kind of question about who has it, who is in charge at that point in time,” a Pentagon spokesman has said. “We don’t take this stuff lightly,” he added. “There won’t be any kind of hiccup. It’ll just go down without anybody even noticing, which is what is supposed to happen.”

While that may have calmed some frayed nerves, many are still dismayed over the unprecedented turn of events in the recent days. Apart from coronavirus and the mandated social distancing, security concerns have transformed Washington, D.C. into something like a war zone. By all accounts, Biden’s swearing-in as the 46th US president is going to be a subdued affair.

But there is perhaps a big message in all this to America and the world—democracy and its traditions can’t be taken for granted.

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