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Move On Up

The case for having the inauguration right after New Year's.

Remember Election Day? And especially the day after? The country felt alive, optimistic, and--there’s no avoiding the word--hopeful. After eight long years, Barack Obama was coming to clean up the mess, riding to the White House on a decisive wave of electoral energy. That was November 5. And then ...

The past two months have been nothing but bad news occasionally interrupted by worse news. The Dow has fallen another 1,100 points. Mumbai exploded. The financial industry kept imploding, in newly grotesque and criminal ways. Another trillion in taxpayer money was tossed at Wall Street. Defibrillator paddles were applied to the automobile industry. Through it all, George W. Bush has appeared less interested than ever in being president; he seems to have taken Election Day as check-out time at the executive hotel. His lame duck economic team has no credibility beyond the cash it is able to dispense, as the markets and Congress await the arrival of a new term. It has been a costly, devastating period of drift.

And Obama? A nation turns its lonely eyes to him, but the president-elect is stuck out there in Chicago or Hawaii, helpless to do anything more substantial than send up wishful signals and gestures. True, most of our problems would still be severe even if Obama had moved in on November 6. And yes, Obama has been doing the difficult and time-consuming work of assembling his team, while his new economic appointees are busy cobbling together an ever-bigger stimulus package for when they arrive in Washington. But his--our--frustration with the shadow-government role is palpable: Obama knows that millions of people are suffering, and that every day that passes without real change brings more pain.

So what are we waiting for? Why are there an interminable eleven weeks between the choice of a new president and his assumption of actual power? Thank the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933--which actually shortened the transition period from a glacial four months. Beginning in 1793, at the start of George Washington’s second term, Inauguration Day was March 4. This made some sense back when the Electoral College had meaning, and when it took weeks for the electors and the new administration to travel by horse and wagon across muddy paths from around the country to Washington. But a couple of scary transition periods made plain the need to shorten the handover of power. The first was in 1861, when the country was on the verge of civil war; Abraham Lincoln was forced to watch Jefferson Davis inaugurated as president of the Confederacy while he was stuck on the sidelines. The second, eerily familiar, transition of our discontent came in 1933. Herbert Hoover had bungled the country into the beginning of the Great Depression, stoking the election of Franklin Roosevelt. Though FDR was in some ways happy for the lengthy pause, using it to distance himself as far as possible from Hoover’s suggestions about how to save the banking industry, he knew that the country’s stability was endangered by the delay--a period historians have labeled, in a deliciously gloomy turn of phrase, “the interregnum of despair.” There had been attempts since 1922 to eliminate a four-month lame duck Congressional session. Agreement was finally reached to swear in the new Congress on January 3, just after New Year’s parties had ended. The president’s arrival also shifted, but the choice of date appears to have been something of an afterthought. “January 20 seemed to be a simple decision based on a rounding notion that the president should follow the new Congress into office within a reasonable amount of time,” says NYU professor Paul C. Light. “That’s an interesting twist. [Moving the presidential inauguration] had less to do originally with urgency than with the prerogatives of Congress.”

75 years ago, we recognized that life had sped up, and that our power structure should adapt accordingly. Why not do it again? Why not move Inauguration Day to January 1, the calendar and cultural marker of everything else new? “A terrible idea,” responded Ari Fleischer, who had a front-row seat for more than a few as Bush’s first-term spokesman, when I asked him about the notion. “And I lived though a shortened transition, after the 2000 recount, that made hitting the ground running even on January 20 very difficult…. We still had massive numbers of jobs to be filled when the president was sworn in.” Aside from the undeniable logistical hassles of staffing thousands of positions, however, Fleischer makes a more persuasive case for the current impatience, and why it may not require a constitutional remedy. “These are unusual circumstances: An unpopular outgoing president and a very popular incoming president. So it is understandable that people want it to happen now,” Fleischer says. “But a lot of elections are 51-48, where it won’t be clear that the country wants to move on that fast. Sometimes you need a little bit more transition time to promote healing. …What this is really about is that the left can’t stand Bush, and it loves Obama, and it wants him in there yesterday.”

True--but so what? Bush clearly doesn’t want to hang around any longer, and thousands more jobs will disappear while he keeps the Oval Office warm for the first three weeks of January. Jack Watson, who directed an incoming and an outgoing transition for Jimmy Carter, agrees with Fleischer about the arduous hiring required (and that the most heated transition arguments are about who gets choice office space in the West Wing). But Watson goes on to a more interesting argument for keeping the current schedule: that even Obama is human. “Yes, you could do it by January 1,” Watson admits. “But why? What are you sacrificing by giving people a little more time to prepare? … We can communicate instantly, it’s true. Everything happens faster now--except thoughtful and reflective analysis. And that’s what’s going on right now. There is real value in having the president-elect and his team provided with time to think before they assume office. I know they’re already working 16-hour days, but once you’re in the job, time to think is almost nonexistent.”

I’m not completely sold, though. The major-party nominees start planning for a possible transition earlier than ever, usually in July. A shift to January 1, or the first Tuesday in January, would strike a reasonable compromise between haste and delay. But forget about it happening any time soon, no matter how many more crises hit between today and January 20: Changing the date still requires a constitutional amendment. And that’s one governmental process even slower than the wait between election and inauguration days.

Chris Smith is a contributing editor and “The City Politic” columnist at New York magazine.

By Chris Smith