Skip links

The End of the Beginning

Tomorrow marks the start of the brave new world of President Donald J. Trump. But today marks the end of the Obama-to-Trump transition. They, and we, survived the interregnum, more or less — and it was not guaranteed and is worth celebrating.

Truly, has there ever been as dramatic a contrast between outgoing and incoming chief executives as Barack Obama and Donald Trump? Actually, yes: the refined John Quincy Adams and the rough-hewn populist Andrew Jackson despised each other. Jackson believed he had been cheated out of the White House by a corrupt bargain during 1824’s House of Representatives “run-off” that installed Adams as president. Jackson spent four years making sure that wrong was righted on Inauguration Day 1829.

Other jarring transfers of power surely include the ones between the timid, indecisive James Buchanan, doing nothing while seven states left the Union, and Abraham Lincoln, who saved the Union in a bloody civil war (1861); the scholarly, erudite Woodrow Wilson and the tawdry, careless Warren G. Harding (1921); Herbert Hoover, a great humanitarian but hapless president, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who gave people hope and sustenance through the depths of the Great Depression (1933); and Jimmy Carter, tortured by a bad economy and the Iranian hostage crisis that persisted to the moment of Ronald Reagan’s oath-taking in 1981.

The transition gives Americans sufficient time to adjust to the change they themselves have wrought. Over 70 days of transition exist between the November election and the Jan. 20 inauguration, and before the 20th Amendment first applied in 1936, the transition was close to double that time span, from November until March 4. The transition was cut in half precisely because the Hoover-to-FDR handoff was fraught with peril and left the nation rudderless during a calamitous period.

Much worse than any scheduled transition were the nine immediate White House transformations caused by natural death, assassination, or resignation. Popular and governmental adjustment had to be instantaneous, and the elevated vice presidents usually had personal styles that contrasted with their late predecessors, as well as some different substantive policies. Theodore Roosevelt was about as dissimilar from William McKinley as two presidents from the same party could be, for instance.

History could only partially prepare us for the aftermath of November 2016’s earthquake. In the hours and days following Donald Trump’s shocking upset, many observers wondered if a crisis would develop right away. How could Trump and Obama, fierce personal enemies and ideological polar opposites, ever manage a transition? After all, Trump had spent five years as the most prominent leader of the spurious, outrageous birther movement that sought to delegitimize Obama’s presidency by claiming he was not a natural-born American. In return, Obama had made a thin-skinned Trump the butt of jokes and barbs for years. And no one worked harder than Obama to keep Trump out of the Oval Office.

It couldn’t have been easy for either man to be civil to the other after the election. But they were and continued to be, for the most part, to their substantial credit. Our country is still deeply divided, much more so than usual, yet imagine how much worse it could have been had No. 44 and No. 45 feuded day after day. Their businesslike tone made cooperation possible, or at least less of a chore, for their staffs. We can’t expect political enemies to join hands and sing kumbaya; we can expect presidents to act in the national interest.

For those who think Obama and Trump’s minimal level of comity is assured, a few historical reminders are in order. John Adams was so contemptuous of Thomas Jefferson that he left the White House in the middle of the night on March 4, 1801, refusing to attend the inaugural ceremony of the man who had vanquished him. (What great correspondents and friends they became in later years, however; for politicians and the rest of us, reconciliation is possible until the tomb beckons.)

Democrat Samuel Tilden, who handily won the reported popular vote in 1876, was urged to lead an army into Washington to stop the “corrupt” handover of power by Congress to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes; luckily, Tilden declined, partly because the election was tainted on both sides. Nonetheless, Tilden and his backers insisted they had been robbed. President Hayes, thereafter called “His Fraudulency,” never had widespread respect or support in his single term.

As already mentioned, the long Hoover-FDR transition was a disaster that inflicted additional pain (such as loads of failed banks) on a suffering nation. President Hoover attempted to get Roosevelt to join him in a reform program during their four-month transition, but FDR refused — believing the reforms inadequate and the ideas designed to tie his own hands. So bitter were these rivals that they said not a word during the 1933 inaugural drive from the White House to the Capitol. Hoover and Roosevelt never reconciled, and they hurled insults at one another with regularity.

We have been more fortunate in modern times. Harry Truman didn’t much care for Dwight Eisenhower — at least the Republican political version of him — but Truman ordered up the first real transition plan, and it benefited Ike significantly. In turn, while Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were not at all close, and the outgoing president was deeply disappointed that his vice president, Richard Nixon, had lost to JFK, pre-inaugural relations between Ike and JFK were correct and cooperative.

When Nixon finally won the White House in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was angry that Nixon had helped deep-six his Vietnam peace talks. Yet the transition went fairly smoothly and the image of unity was projected. Naturally, behind the scenes, they were less flattering about one another. For example, LBJ reveled in describing the tour of the private residence he gave Nixon — always adding that in eight years as vice president, Nixon had never once been invited by Eisenhower to see the living quarters in the White House.

Even after a close, losing campaign that greatly disappointed him, President Gerald Ford was determined to organize the most extensive and professional transition ever — and he did, as Jimmy Carter noted at the outset of his 1977 inaugural address and again as a speaker at Ford’s funeral decades later.

If any president has exceeded Ford’s labors, it might be George W. Bush. The Obamas have frequently mentioned the extraordinary efforts of President and Mrs. Bush to make their move into the White House a smooth one. Moreover, Bush and Obama did what Hoover and FDR did not — coordinate on some urgent responses to the near-collapse of the U.S. financial superstructure in 2008.

No doubt the precedent set by Bush influenced Obama’s actions in recent weeks. The outgoing president knew he owed the incoming one every assistance, whatever their past conflicts. And while Trump has launched broadsides at many an Obama program and ally, the president-elect of late has stayed generally respectful of the outgoing president himself.

In these hyper-partisan times, one is grateful for any hint of civility. Under difficult circumstances, both Obama and Trump have listened to the better angels of their nature. It may be too much to hope that this initial precedent will apply to the many battles on the horizon, but to the extent it can, we’ll all be better off.

As Obama and Trump complete the final act of the transition at noon tomorrow, they would do well to recall the Latin phrase, “Sic transit gloria mundi,” best translated as “worldly glories are fleeting.”

Editor’s Note: For a look back at some Crystal Ball commentary on past inaugurals, please see here for 2009 and here for 2013.