The Best and Worst U.S. Presidential Transitions in History

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November 26, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: 2020 Election Tags: AmericaPresidential Transition2020Donald TrumpJoe Biden

The Best and Worst U.S. Presidential Transitions in History

Where does Trump rank? What about Obama?

The General Services Administration (GSA) declared Joe Biden as “the apparent president-elect” after Michigan certified its election results on Monday and roughly three weeks after major media outlets called a Biden victory. It’s taken the same amount of time for President Donald Trump and the White House staff to move forward with a presidential transition of power, even though the president has refused to accept defeat as his legal team continues with a load of lawsuits in an attempt to overturn the election.

Despite the chaos that’s cluttered the transition, Biden told NBC News that the Trump administration “outreach has been sincere—it has not been begrudging so far, and I don’t expect it to be.”

The president-elect recently released a slew of Cabinet nominees and announcements amid GSA’s declaration, including longtime confidant and veteran foreign policy official Antony Blinken as secretary of state, former assistant secretary of state Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations and President Barack Obama administration veteran Jake Sullivan as national security adviser—Biden staffers who have already received pushback from members of the GOP, signaling an uphill battle in the event of a Republican-controlled Senate.

While the country has experienced a disordered presidential transition amid a duo of crises, America has seen some “smooth” ones. Here’s a look at some of the best and ugliest transitions in history.

Election of 1932: President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Name calling and abusive language between presidential candidates isn’t a modern campaign tactic.

In the election of 1932, Roosevelt and defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover bashed one another on the campaign trail and after the election results were declared, with Hoover dubbing his political opponent as “very badly informed and of comparably little vision” and Roosevelt calling the incumbent, a “fat, timid capon.”

After Roosevelt was named president-elect, Hoover reportedly “refused to talk directly” to him during their first meeting. Instead, the incumbent spoke to one of Roosevent’s top aides and brought in department secretaries to lecture his successor.

The two collided for four months—since inaugurations used to take place in March until the passage of the Twentieth Amendment—as Hoover and Roosevelt disagreed on pressing issues concerning the economic state of the country, disputes that couldn’t be set aside despite a sinking Great Depression.

The Twentieth Amendment, making Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, was ratified likely due to these polarized conversations, according to David Clinton, co-author of Presidential Transitions and Foreign Affairs, telling TIME, “because of its view that things had drifted into the depths of the Great Depression” amid the extra months of Hoover’s administration.

Election of 1860: President Abraham Lincoln

In possibly one of the worst presidential transitions that lasted for four months, seven states seceded from the Union and southerners seized federal forts, preparing for a vicious war.

“It wasn’t a surprise that the Republicans won. But in the aftermath of that, there was this interminable period of transition—four months. It must have felt like an absolute eternity,” Susan Schulten, American historian and author, told SLATE.

Since the country not only beamed partisan divides, America was also polarized “politically by section,” according to Schulten. Democrats in the north backed one of the presidential candidates, while southerners in the same party supported another. These stark divisions amounted to harsh rhetoric that Democratic President James Buchanan never completely shut down or condemned, as his “ineptitude kept the secession conversation going,” Schulten said. But at the same time, president-elect Lincoln could have been more involved in taming the radical south.

During the four-month turmoil, Lincoln and Schulten never spoke.

Just five weeks after Lincoln was sworn into office, the Civil War reportedly started when an effort to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston made Southern spies set fire to the supply ships since they didn’t know they were coming.

Election of 1968: President Richard Nixon

Nixon’s transition was perhaps one of the smoothest processes, as all but one Cabinet nomination were swiftly confirmed during a twenty-minute session.

Just a few weeks after Nixon’s White House win, the then-president-elect appointed several key Cabinet posts including chief of staff Bob Haldeman and press secretary Ronald Ziegler. By December, Nixon had released all of his top secretaries in a massive announcement, one that was seen by historians as an attempt to reduce individual criticism of each of the nominees.

The lone soldier who wasn’t immediately confirmed by the Senate vowed his commitment to the position and experience in the field, which convinced bipartisan lawmakers to eventually approve of his nomination.

Election of 1988: President George H.W. Bush

After Bush won in a landslide against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, the then-president-elect got right to work. The morning after, Bush publicly declared that he would appoint James Baker as secretary of state, and just a few days later he announced he would keep several Cabinet members from President Ronald Reagan’s administration including Nicholas Brady as treasury secretary, Richard Thornburgh as attorney general and Lauro Cavazos secretary of education, forming one of the most diverse Republican Cabinets in history, as he ended up choosing  two Hispanic Americans, one African American, and two women, according to The Brookings Institution.

Despite Bush’s widespread preparation and “golden resumé,” a number of his Cabinet posts had tough Senate hearings, with one in particular—John Tower as defense secretary—being put in the upper chamber’s boxing ring as a rain of allegations about previous relationships and drinking were put on blast. Tower’s nomination ended up getting rejected, adding to a trio of Bush’s other nominees that experienced moot Senate hearings.

Election of 1992: President Bill Clinton

Clinton and his predecessor Bush had a much more civil relationship compared to Trump and Biden. When Clinton entered the Oval Office, he was greeted with a comforting letter from Bush, wishing him “great happiness,” “good luck” and ended with “I am rooting hard for you.”

But while the Clinton-Bush relationship set partisan differences aside, Clinton’s transition has been dubbed “downright chaotic,” as it was “self-imposed” by establishing a broad task to make his Cabinet resemble America, by promising the attorney general position for a woman. It took Clinton three attempts to name his chief law enforcement officer for his administration since his first two—Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood—found themselves in contentious Senate hearings that uncovered personal issues like the use of illegal aliens to watch their children.

His third attempt at the attorney general spot, Dade County, Florida’s state attorney Janet Reno, was finally confirmed two months after Clinton’s inauguration. While the former president’s Cabinet had both men and women, as well as African and Hispanic American representation, the disaster surrounding his attorney general pick likely harmed his reputation and the start of his presidency.

Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.

Image: Reuters.