TRANSITION OF POWER
HALLMARK OF DEMOCRACY
Rajika Jayatilake writes that the peaceful transfer of power by the Executive is enshrined in US law
As everything must pass, so must the baton from one leader of a nation to the next. Nonetheless, in some countries in the developing world, passing the baton is an exceptionally difficult and bitter process.
Political leaders who are heady with absolute power are unable to let go to make way for a peaceful transition of power. Some even try to amend their country’s constitution so they can retain power. In such instances, the victims are the citizens of that country and its future progress.
Following the US presidential election in November, the immediate commencement of the transition of power to the president-elect was a shining example of how democracy works.
However bitter and divisive the election campaign was, when it was over and the winner was declared, the country was set to move on.
Continuing the democratic tradition of a peaceful transition, President Barack Obama spoke to President-elect Donald Trump when his victorywas officially announced and invited him to visit the White House to discuss the process of transition.
“The world will witness a hallmark of our democracy … The peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” Obama assured, in his farewell speech to the nation.
In her concession speech following a devastating defeat, the Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton said that “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power.”
The presidential election in the US is held on the first Tuesday following 1 November once every four years and the inauguration of the new president takes place on 20 January. In the United States, ‘presidential transition’ means the transfer of power in the executive branch from the incumbent to the president-elect between Election Day and Inauguration Day.
This process includes key personnel from the incumbent president’s office helping the incoming commander-in-chief’s staff to become familiar with the critical functions of the executive branch.
Presidential transitions began in 1797 when George Washington handed over the reins of power to John Adams. Since then, there have been 44 transitions with Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States. Some transitions were smooth while others weren’t. The Presidential Transitions Act of 1963 made the transition mechanisms a part of the nation’s law.
As Obama noted in his farewell address: “I committed to President-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest-possible transition as President [George W.] Bush did for me. Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.”
In fact, the transition of power from the Bush administration to the Obama administration was seen as seamless, and the latter praised the outgoing president during his inauguration speech for “his service to our nation as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.”
Furthermore, when an incumbent president has had two four-year terms – the maximum the US constitution permits – he gracefully exits centre stage, allowing his successor to pick up the mantle of power and steer the ship of nationhood. A custom dating back decades refrains former presidents from criticising their successors, thus creating an amicable brotherhood of former presidents.
For instance, Bush refused to criticise Obama. His response was: “I don’t think it does any good. It’s a hard job. He’s got plenty on his agenda. It’s difficult. A former president doesn’t need to make it any harder.” Senior political analyst David Gergen referred to this perspective as “an old-fashioned standard that the presidency is one of the world’s greatest fraternities and its members don’t criticise each other.”
There’s never been any question of former US presidents trying to claw their way back into power in different guises. In fact, in 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act to “maintain the dignity” of the office.
So ex-presidents need not seek employment for as long as they live because they’re paid the equivalent of the salary of a cabinet secretary, complete with health insurance and round-the-clock protection by the secret service. The law also provides former presidents with an office, staff and expenses for life.
“The great thing about being a former president is that while you relinquish formal power, you maintain the prestige of the office,” notes Mark Updegrove, the Director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and author of Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After The White House.
When the first President of the United States of America George Washington retired following his second term and returned to his plantation house in Mount Vernon, upon addressing the nation, he expressed a “pleasing expectation” of returning to the “sweet enjoyment” of citizenship.
And as Indian IT industrialist Narayana Murthy has said: “When you run a part of the relay and pass on the baton, there is no sense of unfinished business in your mind. There is only the sense of having done your part to the best of your ability. That is it. The hope is to pass on the baton to somebody who will run faster and a better marathon.”