11.29.08

America Suddenly Has Two Presidents

Obama has taken a more active pre-inauguration role than any other president-elect in recent history.

Americans are watching the extraordinary sight of two presidents working at once. As President George W. Bush limps through his final days in office, with the economy struggling and seemingly on the verge of collapse, we are greeted every day to roll-outs of President-elect Barack Obama’s new initiatives through another press conference and another policy proclamation. What’s more, there is evidence that the Bush and Obama people have been talking through these immediate decisions.

The visibility of President-elect Obama is unprecedented in scale and scope. More common are experiences such as the one that existed between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover after 1932. As the economy sank further into a hole, the two did almost nothing together. Hoover reached out to FDR, but the President-elect refused to accept his invitations because he understood that Hoover was attempting to get him to sign on to his policies. When Hoover wrote Roosevelt asking him to make a statement promising to balance the budget and keep the country on the gold standard, as well as to avoid government borrowing, he refused to answer for ten days. When he did finally write back, he said, “I am equally concerned with you in regard to the gravity of the present banking situation, but my thought is that it is so very deep-seated that the fire is bound to spread in spite of anything that is done by way of mere statements.”

The visibility of President-elect Obama is unprecedented in scale and scope.

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan only met once in period between the election and inauguration in 1980 and 1981. When President Carter met with President-elect Reagan on November 20 at the Oval Office to brief him on the key issues that he would face, including stagflation, the hostage crisis in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Reagan didn’t say a thing or ask any questions. The president, who was baffled, asked the president-elect if he wanted a notepad, to which Reagan replied no. The two barely interacted over the coming months. And while the Carter White House did the tough work of negotiating with the Iranians, the hostages were not released until the minute after Reagan took the oath of office in order to humiliate the outgoing president.

This split-screen presidential transition is different from others. One reason is the obvious—the fragile state of the economy and reality of a grave economic crisis. The problem is so severe and the failures are so interconnected—not just within the U.S., but also around the globe—that the risk of inaction on any given day is severe.

The second factor has to do with the events of September. In the midst of the presidential campaign and Wall Street meltdown, Congress passed its financial bailout package. The program was structured in such as way that Treasury Department was granted enormous discretionary authority to handle the distribution of funds. As a result, Obama and his team must be a visible presence as discussions are underway about how to handle the fund.

The third factor is that President Bush has taken the term lame duck presidency to new extremes. The president has been resistant to act as economic conditions deteriorate, and even Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson has been stumbling in his efforts to implement the financial bailout, sending different signals each day and failing to provide an overall argument to the nation about what has gone wrong and how they are trying to fix it.

The final factor is the media environment. The media does not allow any room for a politician to be quiet—and this is not necessarily a bad thing. With constant chatter on the Internet and reporters hunting for breaking stories, the scrutiny is relentless. For the media, there is no interregnum, no transition, and the honeymoon is already over, as the press demands to know how the president plans to handle this crisis.

The terrorist attacks in India have heightened concern over national security. Bush has already been keeping Obama up to date on the information they have and these discussions will only accelerate in the coming month. In the end, this jump-start may be a good thing. The Obama administration has a more advanced and organized transition than any we have seen in recent times. When Obama is inaugurated on January 20, he will already have been working on the problems facing America for months, and his team will have much more experience than when the campaign ended. Perhaps, without an economic crisis, this accelerated transition can serve as a healthy precedent for future presidents.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.