“The king is dead, long live the king!”
These words—in French—are said to have been announced for the first time upon the death of King Charles VI in 1422 and the immediate ascension to the throne of his son, Charles VII. More recently, the phrase was altered to, “The King is dead, long live the Queen!” when George VI of England died, and his daughter Elizabeth II succeeded him. Regardless of the century or nation, the proclamation indicates an instantaneous transition from one ruler to the next.
The United States doesn’t have such a rapid process. The reason is not that we have an elected president rather than a hereditary monarch. Some countries change governments quickly even if they’re not ruled by kings and queens. The prime minister of England, who, unlike the queen, is the real head of the government, moves into the PM’s home-and-office at 10 Downing Street immediately upon election. If the results are unclear, the process can take several weeks, during which the defeated PM promises not to make significant changes in policy. The president of France takes office within ten days after being elected. And, the chancellor of Germany does so within seven days.
Similarly, states in our country get new governors without a long waiting period. New York inaugurates its incoming head on New Year’s Day. Alaska and Hawaii do so even sooner—on December 1, within weeks of the election.
So, what’s the matter with the federal government in America? Why do we wait roughly eleven weeks between our presidential election on the first Tuesday of November and Inauguration Day on January 20 to switch from the outgoing occupant of the White House to the newcomer? There are several answers. Two of them—the Electoral College and the date of Inauguration Day—are baked into the Constitution. During the leap from outgoing President Donald J. Trump to incoming President-elect Joseph R. Biden, another issue arose, one that never occurred to the Framers.
When they created the Constitution in 1787, they worried that most people would not have the information they needed to pick the best candidate for president. So, instead of voting for a candidate, they set up the system now called the Electoral College by which the people actually vote for an elector to cast the final ballot for them. The Framers knew it would take time to collect and count the people’s votes, to gather the electors in each state, and to transmit their votes—the only ones that really count in a presidential election—to the US capital. Initially, they allowed until March 4 to get the job done and hold the inauguration. The Twentieth Amendment moved that ceremony to January 20—closer to the election but still nearly three months away. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated (for his second term) on this date in 1937.
Normally, this interim time between administrations is not eventful. This is particularly true when an incumbent president wins a second term, as did Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. This is also generally the case when the successor belongs to the same party as the former president, such as the transition from Reagan to George H. W. Bush in 1988. The move can be rockier if there is a change of parties, such as from the Democratic Obama to the Republican Donald J. Trump in 2016. Also, an incumbent can be defeated, as when Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980. Supposedly, during these so-called lame-duck periods between administrations, the departing office-holder is powerless. However, mischief and untoward events can arise. In Fault Lines in the Constitution, we explain how Clinton ended up fighting a war in Somalia that George H. W. Bush started after he lost the election.
Still, regardless of who moves out and who moves into the White House, the American system of government has relied on a peaceful transfer of power—until 2020, when Trump refused to acknowledge that he got fewer popular votes and fewer Electoral College votes than his opponent, Biden.
The Constitution says only that a president’s term ends after four years. It doesn’t indicate what to do if the president decides to overstay his welcome. Some Framers were concerned about an all-powerful, king-like executive, especially since he would be commander in chief of the armed forces. At the convention in Virginia to ratify the Constitution in 1788, Patrick Henry said, “how easy is it for him to render himself absolute! The army is in his hands.” A man in Pennsylvania wrote that “this country will be involved at once in war and tyranny” if the army remains loyal to a president who lacks “virtue.” Furthermore, this election-loser “may not have the means of supporting, in private life, the dignity of his former station…he may be at once ambitious and poor, and deeply involved in debt.” Such a man might refuse to let go of the office.
Knowing these possibilities, why didn’t the Framers seek to prevent them? They assumed that no president would put his own interests above those of the country as a whole. They further assumed that anyone who might be so selfish would have been impeached and removed from office before the next election.
Trump did not behave like a lame duck. Nor, for a while, did he transfer power at all, let alone peacefully. Unlike Britain’s PM, he instituted policies regarding the environment, foreign affairs, the military, the pandemic, and other areas, that his successor will have trouble undoing. And the Constitution does not provide a remedy.