Last week, while the economy sank, the war continued and judicial openings remained unfilled, President Bush was in Peru and President-elect Obama was delivering a speech proposing a major economic program. Congress had a duty to both men. Powerful leaders, at home and abroad, are speaking over Bush’s head to Obama. The sky is falling, and January is months away.

Why is it that the national election is held in early November while the inauguration is in late January? Some time is required for a new government to be formed. But two and one-half months? And in times of great import? Parliamentary governments take over power when they are elected. Not a bad idea for presidential candidates to campaign with a proposed Cabinet.

Four-year terms for presidency derive from Article II, which defines the executive powers. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1933, calls for presidential terms to end at noon on the 20th of January — it used to be later. Our obsolete Electoral College requires time to do its weird work. Historically, it took months to get electors to Washington.

As Professor Sanford Levinson noted in his recent book, Our Undemocratic Constitution, during this 10-week hiatus period, it is possible that “repudiated presidents continued to possess all of the powers of their office.” He described two instances of this perversity, the elections of 1860 and 1932, Lincoln-Buchanan and Hoover-FDR, when the United States did not have “a functioning government during two of the greatest crises in its history, the secession winter and the depth of the Great Depression.”

One could argue that this is a comparable time, that George Bush was definitively rejected and his successor is hampered in his ability to act — we have one president at a time, President-elect Obama has quite properly noted. But we have multiple crises, and the president-elect must be responsible for the lame duck’s actions.

The time between regime changes is arbitrary. Why not amend our constitutional process to swear in the new president on Dec. 20 (Dec. 1?)? A compromise, permitting some transitional time but also assuring a faster shifting of power and a fresh start after the end-of-year holidays and the welcoming of a new year?


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