The Political History of the World

president George W. Bush meets with president-elect Barack Obama

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This day, November 10th of 2008 to president George W. Bush meets with president-elect Barack Obama behind closed doors for nearly two hours. It was Barack Obama’s first time inside the oval office and this meeting sort of signalled the start of the transition. Between the Bush terms and the Obama terms.

Now, this wasn’t any old transition though. The country was in the middle of an economic spiral was coming off of a historic election. That was a real sense of stakes and questions about balance when it came to well, who was really leading the country through that crisis. So does any of this sound familiar folks, uh, here to discuss the Bush Obama transition and presidential transitions, in general.

Well first, like historically they’re shorter than they used to be. If that’s any comfort that used to be the presidents used to be sworn in on March 4th and in part, because a like, news took longer to travel as did people. So it just took a long time to get everyone the information they needed to transition to a new government, but also it takes a long time to stand up a government. And in 1932, the 20th amendment is passed through Congress saying that actually, we need this to go a little quicker people. Um, and it was finally ratified in 1933. And you could imagine people really wanted that in effect in 1932 because Franklin Roosevelt wins the election in November and the country has to wait for long months before they finally get a new president who can address the existential economic crisis. That’s crushing the country during that period. 

I’ve seen people kind of this conversation kind of break out and people say, gosh, it really seems like it takes a long time in other countries. Right. I think in the UK, it’s like, you know, the prime minister walks out of 10 Downing street and like hands the keys over kind of the next one morning. I mean, I go back and forth, like, get that frustration about how long it takes. And I do agree, especially in these moments of crisis, like you end up with some of the dynamics we’ll talk about. Um, but I also sort of see it like this period where you do get to set up your, your government. And if all of a sudden the next president was on the clock and the expectations were, they were going to start solving the problems right away. Well, it takes a long time too, you know, bring new people in and, and figure out the new passwords on the computers and all those things. So it’s sort of like borrowed time. It is sort of like a little bit of a period in which you get the flywheel going or whatever, but, um, But I don’t know. I don’t know. It feels like shorter than this, but maybe not right away is the, is the right answer, is what I’m trying to say.

I would think in these periods, you’re just like, come the hell on its time. When people have voted it’s time to get a new government in there, especially in the middle of a crisis when it seems especially urgent, but especially in the middle of a crisis, when you feel like the current government is not doing its job, that was the big thing in 1932. Right. Was that the feeling that the Hoover administration was not doing enough to address the depression and that something needed to be done. It’s a little different in 2008, there’s open lines of communication about the economic crisis and how it’s unfolding. So I think that there is this desire to have these things happen more quickly, but standing up a government. I mean, there are thousands of jobs that need to be filled. There’s a cabinet that needs to be assembled. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And it’s worked that these campaigns have been doing. For months now, right. Transition projects that start pretty early on. 

let’s go to 2008 and talk a little bit about that dynamics there, but yes, I do. I do think there was a sense of we’re in this moment of crisis. Bush knew he was no longer going to be president, but that’s part of it. So they had reached out as the crisis was unfolding to the Obama teams and the McCain teams. And so there wasn’t this sense of, Oh, okay. This is no longer our problem, you know, once, uh, uh, once the election’s over, um, And that might be a little, slightly different dynamic than two right now. We’ll see. But, um, you know, I also at this, by the same token do feel like there was this real sense of, okay, now Obama’s been elected. We have this crisis in front of us. Obama is speaking publicly about it as he has been throughout the election, who do we turn to? Who’s calling the shots here. And I mean, obviously, the person calling the shots is the person who’s president until January, but there’s also that other kind of leading a nation kind of thing, um, which is also matters a lot. Uh, so how do you remember that time and how did the two sides kind of navigate. 

I remember that same feeling, which is you’re kind of done. With the old president, right? And this is that idea of a lame-duck session, right. Where everybody has been kicked out of their jobs. And they’re just keeping the lights on until the new guy comes in. Um, but I think that the Obama transition team was very clear. Like we are not president yet. We’re getting together our plans. We’re trying to communicate to you what we’re planning to do, because you need that kind of sense of stability, especially when it comes to financial and economic policy. There needs to be some predictability about what’s going to happen next. Um, so they’re, they’re signalling what they’re going to do, but they’re trying to make very clear look. There’s still a president in place that president is going to continue to preside over this until it’s time for us to take the wheel.

This is really challenging for transition teams because you do have to spend a lot of time before the election even happens. Figuring out how you’re going to transition into office if that eventuality comes to pass. Um, but then you get criticized for kind of like measuring the drapes that you’re too early eyeing that oval office and assuming you’re going to win and there’s some arrogance or some cockiness around that. And that’s a media narrative, right? Like, absolutely these campaigns need to be doing the work of transition. Well, before we know who wins the election, because again, it’s just, it’s a huge, huge job. And it requires that level of planning. 

So this kind of started by the 1963 presidential transitions act that kind of lays the groundwork for this idea that when incoming administration it needs office space, it needs funds in order to sort of bridge those now about two and a half months between the election and the inauguration. And it needs things like security clearances. So in 1948, Harry Truman is running for reelection and it’s the Dewy campaign that starts to get these national security briefings because you’ve entered the cold war. And there’s the sense that there’s real threat out there and that whoever is going to take the reigns needs to be prepared. Something that Harry Truman wasn’t actually prepared for when FDR dies. Right. He had to be read into the whole national security apparatus. We wanted to make sure that somebody else coming into the presidency wasn’t caught off guard. And this was true too. For President Obama, there was a new law passed in 2004. For that made sure that people started to get their security clearances right away, early in the pre-transition period so that they would be ready to hit the ground running on national security issues. And these things have been amended over and over and over again, to provide more money, to provide more formality to the process. But there is a real legal process here, which starts off with the general services administration saying hello president-elect. Here’s the keys to the transition offices. Uh, here’s your money go to town. 

This is considered one of the smoothest running transitions that we know of in the modern era. And it’s in large part because the Bush team again was done with its two terms. It knew it was getting ready to transition, but it also took very seriously, both the fact that there was an economic crisis happening, but also this was the first wartime transition since 1968, the US was involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And successfully transitioning governments in those precarious situations required very good planning and the Bush team took it very, very seriously. 

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The Political History of the World