Cinderella Civics? A Primer in Presidential Transition

There’s an old saying, “history often repeats itself.” I’ve heard this for years and accepted it as something akin to urban legend or an old wives tale. Alas, however, we are presented with a case study of that very phenomenon. There is much speculation as to whether or not President Donald J. Trump will submit to the peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day to President-Elect Joseph Biden.


There remains a lot of questions as to whether or not President-Elect Biden actually won the election or whether there was some sort of election fraud that occurred. I’ll not enter into the fray of conversation on this topic at this writing, but will offer a few thoughts without further commentary before continuing with the original thought:

  • There is an old political mantra out there that states, “if you can’t convince them, confuse them.” We are witnessing many competing narratives in the media. It’s hard to cipher out the truth from political bias. That may be the point of the story.

  • It is absolutely essential that there is integrity in the United States election process. It is a foundational piece of the democratic institution. If there is no (or perceived there is no) integrity in the process, the effects will be long lasting as candidates will no longer want to run if the results have been “pre-determined” and more troubling, citizens simply will not participate. The latter being most problematic as we already fight traditionally low voter participation.

Thus far, we’ve conjectured on a lot of hypothetical situations and a good bit of “he said, she said.” For the purpose of this writing, lets follow out the hypothetical scenario that President Trump does not concede and refuses to hand over the presidency, but first, we’ll take a field trip down memory lane.


Our time travel takes us to the election of 1800. In the previous election, President Washington had voluntarily stepped down after serving two terms. The candidates to succeed Washington are John Adams, who served as his Vice President and Thomas Jefferson, who served as his Secretary of State. Both of the founding fathers were equally up to the task. Adams narrowly wins becoming president. At the time there is no provision for how a Vice President was to be selected so it went to the second highest vote recipient, Thomas Jefferson.


John Adams and Thomas Jefferson: friends, enemies, dear friends

Adams was a Federalist. Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican. The two saw eye to eye on very little, if anything.


An article at history.com (https://www.history.com/news/peaceful-transfer-power-adams-jefferson) described the election like this:

These bitter differences were front and center during the 1800 presidential campaign, which played out in the highly partisan press. Federalist newspapers and propaganda materials branded French sympathizers as dangerous radicals, while Democratic-Republicans accused the Federalists of wanting to reestablish a monarchy.

It would be little surprise to find out then that President John Adams departed the White House at 4:30 AM on Inauguration Day and did not attend the ceremony of his successor. There are many theories as to why this happened—and we’ll never know for sure—but either way, this set the precedent of peaceful transfer of power from one party (Federalist) to another (Democratic-Republican).

Interestingly enough while the vast majority of outgoing presidents have attended the inaugurations of their successor, John Adams was not the only one to opt out. John Quincy Adams skipped Andrew Jackson’s inauguration and Andrew Johnson did not attend the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant.


Interesting that history does, indeed, repeat itself!


Regardless of whether or not the outgoing president chooses to attend the inaugural ceremony of his (and since we’re in the 21st century, I’ll add or her) successor, the constitutional process of transition continues unphased.


The trappings of the presidency, the position itself is not something that is owned by the individual. Rather it is lent to an individual (of the people, by the people, for the people) for a specific and limited period of time. Much like in the story of Cinderella, when the clock struck midnight, everything changed: her carriage became a pumpkin, her gown returned to rags. As it goes, at 12 noon on Inauguration Day, the President becomes normal citizen (albeit with Secret Service protection). The presidency itself is too large for an individual to harness. This is by design and Washington, who could have become King, led the way for this to become our way of governing.


Going back to the original question regarding the current presidential predicament… The process has already started. Without some major intervening force, which is unlikely, once the electoral college casts its vote, the fate of the presidency is sealed. In a recent NPR interview, Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, commented,

“the vast majority of our government and our bureaucracy and the executive branch continues no matter who's in the White House. So by that I mean that there's probably some overemphasis placed on the transition of power from one administration to the other."

In a white paper from the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition (http://presidentialtransition.org/wp-content/?uploads/sites/6/2020/11/How-Bush-and-Obama-Created-a-Gold-Standard-Transition.pdf), the Bush-Obama transition was held as the “Gold Standard” of transitions. To that end, George W. Bush, hosted a luncheon with Obama and all of the former living presidents at the White House—the first of such gatherings in a quarter of a century.


Bush said, “One message that I have and I think we all share is that we want you to succeed. Whether we’re Democrat or Republican, we care deeply about this country.” He continued, “all of us who have served in this office understand that the office itself transcends the individual and we wish you all the very best, and so does the country. To the extent we can, we look forward to sharing our experiences with you.”

L-R Presidents Bush (41), Obama, Bush (43), Clinton and Carter

A grateful Obama called the meeting extraordinary and thanked the current president for hosting it, remarking, “all the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office, and for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary.”


While it may feel that the times we are experiencing are unique to our generation, our press pool, or our president, we find that history has provided for us numerous examples of the current situation before as reference. We also know that, whether or not, the president agrees with the outcome, the Constitution marches forward with the processes started more than 200 years ago.

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