TIME politics

Barack Obama, Donald Trump and the Difficult History of Presidential Transition

The transition period is a notoriously tricky time

When President Barack Obama met with President-elect Donald Trump for the first time at the White House on Thursday, the meeting was billed as part of Obama’s promise to ensure a “smooth” transition of power the way George W. Bush did for him. As he said in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, “The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy.”

But, while examples of that peacefulness abound—like the letter that President H.W. Bush left on the desk of the Oval Office for his successor Bill Clinton—American history has also seen its fair share of transitions that were far from “smooth.”

For instance, while Trump and Obama talked for 90 minutes, defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover is said to have refused to talk directly to President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt during their first meeting after the 1932 election. Instead, the sitting president spoke only to FDR’s aide Raymond Moley, according to one account. He brought in his Treasury Secretary to lecture the incoming President on “the importance of the gold standard, the stability of the banking system and the problem of Europe’s war debt,” as TIME has previously reported. While Obama said he was “encouraged” by his “excellent” discussion with Trump, Hoover described Roosevelt as “very badly informed and of comparably little vision.” (Roosevelt, for his part, had called Hoover afat, timid capon” during the campaign.)

By the end of Hoover’s time in office, the Dow had plunged to its lowest level, and the nation was sinking further into the Great Depression. The two couldn’t work together during the transition period—which was four months long back then, because Inauguration Day used to be March 4—because Hoover opposed direct government aid to the unemployed, and Roosevelt’s team is said to have already been drafting the programs that would, in direct opposition to Hoover’s policies, become the New Deal. Though the four months was still not enough time for Roosevelt to appoint a cabinet, as former Presidential adviser Stephen Hess explained in his book Organizing the Presidency, it is no coincidence that the 20th Amendment, moving Inauguration Day up to January 20, was ratified just one year into FDR’s time in office.

“The administration urged Congress to approve the amendment and send it out to the states for ratification,” explains David Clinton, co-author of Presidential Transitions and Foreign Affairs, “because of its view that things had drifted into the depths of the Great Depression” during the extra months of the Hoover administration.

But the history of tumultuous presidential transitions is even older than that.

Take the election of 1800, in which Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated the second president John Adams, his friend-turned-rival and a Federalist. On the surface, the 1801 inauguration appeared to go smoothly. It was celebrated at the time, and has continued to be commended, as what Jefferson called the “revolution of 1800”: the first modern example of one party peacefully ceding power to another. But at the same time, the departing Adams made “so-called ‘midnight appointments’ of Federalist judges and court officials” and did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration, according to CQ. The dispute over those last-minute hirings would go all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison.

And perhaps the worst transition ever was in 1860, after Abraham Lincoln won the election. Between the November election and Inauguration day, Lincoln barely talked to the sitting Democratic President James Buchanan; meanwhile, South Carolina and six other states seceded from the Union and formed a provisional confederate government. “Buchanan thought the President didn’t have a right to stop [secession],” says David Clinton. Federal forts in those areas were running out of supplies by the time Lincoln was sworn in, and it was the effort the resupply Fort Sumter in South Carolina that would lead to the outbreak of the Civil War five weeks after the inauguration.

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The examples of so-called “lame-duck” presidents taking actions that will affect the next administration, for better or worse, are many. President John Tyler annexed Texas three days before the inauguration of James K. Polk in 1845. Dwight D. Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, shortly before John F. Kennedy took his place, and had already set in motion what would become the Bay of Pigs invasion.

So, over the years, many attempts have been made—like the 20th Amendment—to make the transition period more likely to go well.

For example, Harry S. Truman started the tradition of giving presidential nominees intelligence briefings during the 1952 presidential election so that future newcomers would avoid the situation he found himself in upon taking office, when he didn’t find out what the Manhattan Project was until the details of the atomic bomb fell on his lap. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 allocated public money to help pay for travel, staff and other costs associated with housing the incoming and outgoing presidents. (Previously, newly-elected presidents had to use their own money, campaign donations or solicit other private funding if they wanted to get started before Inauguration Day.) On Wednesday, James R. Jones—a former Congressman from Oklahoma who was involved in orchestrating the transition to the Nixon administration in 1968, the first such transition after the passage of that act—wrote for the New York Times that outgoing President Johnson was determined that Richard Nixon should be ready to go as soon as he took office.

“The federal government has gotten too big to let it be handled without an assured source of funding,” says Clinton. “It was recognized that this had become a public duty. It had become a part of governing—to get ready to govern.”

And that’s no small task: Nowadays, incoming presidents must fill “roughly 4,000 politically appointed positions, including more than 1,000 jobs requiring Senate confirmation,” according to the think tank The Partnership for Public Service.

But that recognition doesn’t mean the problem of the transition has been solved. Pranks on incoming George W. Bush White House staffers pulled by staff members of the outgoing Clinton administration cost the government $13,000-$14,000, a 2002 General Accounting Office report found. (For example, dozens of computers were missing their “W” keys.)

It’s too early to tell whether Obama and Trump’s first meeting was actually “excellent,” or how future meetings between Obama and Trump will go, or how events that take place during the “lame-duck” will affect the next administration. But as Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech, “Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power.” And, as the historian David Clinton puts it, it’s the Constitution that specifies that Election Day and Inauguration Day are separate—so, no matter how rough the transition period may be, it’s enshrined too.

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