Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the uniquely American transition of presidential power. It is a remarkable tradition that is rooted in the democratic visions of the nation’s forefathers. For more than two centuries, it has been a comparatively peaceful, if not always smooth, changeover from one President to the next. As Time Magazine reported in 2008, “It’s not just ego that has a way of fouling up this transition; both parties have one eye on the history books, as the outgoing President airbrushes the epilogue and the arriving one prepares the prologue.”
Presidents are, of course, human and have hominian predilections. It has taken literal acts of Congress to codify transitional activities to avoid having emotions getting in the way. Those laws appear to have worked to some degree or another and Presidential transfer of power is not only peaceful, it is civil, in most respects.
That was evident in the country’s most recent transfer of power, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Given the rancor and enmity of the election campaign, it was striking to see the outgoing and incoming Presidents smiling and chatting with each other during the inauguration like hail fellows well met. In his inaugural speech, President Trump even heaped praise on former President Obama, who sat nearby, once again an ordinary citizen. “We are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition,” said the new President. “They have been magnificent.” For his part, the new former President thumped his successor on the upper arm and said, “Good job, good job,” when the speech was over.
The actual transfer of power takes only 40 seconds, long enough for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to administer the Oath of Office to the new President. Just like that. It’s done. One President out. Another one in. No coup. No tanks in the streets. No political uprising, unless that is what you believe the election was all about.
The trappings of the inauguration are full of pomp and ceremony. But for this blogger, the most salient moment of power transition came later. There, on the steps of the US Capitol stood President and Mrs. Trump alone with Vice-President and Mrs. Pence. They watched quietly as Citizen and Mrs. Obama boarded a helicopter for the short ride to Andrews Air Force Base. Then the new power in Washington went inside the capitol for a lavish luncheon with members of Congress. Meanwhile, on the split screen, the Obamas boarded a waiting plane at Andrews for a flight to Palm Springs, no longer at the apex of American political power.
That was the transition in a photo op: lunch and a plane ride.