On the way out: interregnum presidential activity.

Author:Klotz, Robert J.

The presidential interregnum refers to the activities of the outgoing administration during the period between the election and the inauguration of a new president. A presidential interregnum can be contrasted with a presidential transition which covers the same time period but refers to the preparations for office of the incoming administration. Thus, in the study of presidential transitions, departing presidents are interesting actors only to the extent which their activity facilitates or hinders the assumption of power by their successors. In adopting an exclusive focus on the departing presidents, this study takes the opposite perspective. Incoming presidents are interesting actors only to the extent which their activity facilitates or hinders the policy implementation of the departing presidents.

One similarity between this study and studies of presidential transitions is the focus on elections in which presidential power was transferred from one party to the other. By limiting the study to instances where the party holding the presidency changed, the assumption is that the transfer of power to a different party is different than other transfers. Certainly, the departing presidents believe that the assumption is correct. Herbert Hoover attributed special problems to party-change interregnums: "The four months' interregnum between election and inauguration (since shortened to two months) had always been a particularly difficult period, especially when there was a change of political parties, with all the overcharged campaign emotions."(1)

General Presidential Perspective

Before beginning evaluation of presidential interregnum activity, it is important to obtain a general sense of the state of mind of presidents during the interregnum. Oddly, interregnum presidents often have a sense of relief. They are almost happy to be leaving office. This is not entirely surprising because electoral defeat has often been a product of serious problems in the nation. These problems can make a demanding job even more difficult. The understandable happiness of James Buchanan in leaving the impending Civil War to his successor is clear as he told Lincoln: "My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed."(2) Under less trying circumstances, William Taft expressed that "The nearer I get to the inauguration of my successor, the greater relief I feel."(3)

Whether they were happy or sad about leaving the presidency, all departing presidents shared the belief that they were responsible for conducting the presidency until the moment when their successor was officially inaugurated. This may seem a self-evident point. However, interregnum presidents could conceivably relinquish power. In fact, Woodrow Wilson considered one such scheme as he faced defeat in 1916:

What would be my duty to do were Mr. Hughes elected? Four months

would lapse before he could take charge of the affairs of the

government, and during those four months I would be without such

moral backing from the nation as would be necessary to steady and

control our relations with other governments. I would be known to be

the rejected, not the accredited, spokesman of the country; and yet

the accredited spokesman would be without legal authority to speak

for the nation.(4)

Wrestling with the issue, Wilson contemplated appointing Hughes secretary of state and then having both himself and his vice president resign so that Hughes could assume the presidency. However, four years later when he encountered the situation, Wilson never seriously considered relinquishing power.(5)

Other interregnum presidents contemplated their legal authority as president. They all arrived at the same conclusion. It is a view of legal responsibility perhaps best articulated by Harry Truman while addressing the nation during his interregnum: "I have not sought to thrust upon him nor has he sought to take--the responsibility which must be mine until twelve o'clock noon on January twentieth."(6) It is, therefore, clear that all departing presidents decided to retain power. What did they do with it?


Thus, party-change presidential interregnums, are worthy of study as distinct political phenomena. How do departing presidents act when placed in this position? Is there a theory that explains their behavior? A useful theory of departing presidential behavior would seem to have two critical requirements. First, because historians have ranked "decisiveness" as the most important contributor to presidential achievement,(7) the theory should consider whether the president acts in a given policy area. Under what conditions can a departing president be expected to act decisively in the interregnum? Second, if the president acts, does it matter? In other words, the theory should address what ultimately transpired from the president's action in a policy area. Were his policy wishes implemented?

In constructing a theory, it is important to address the three key realities that the president is facing. First, the president has a short time remaining. The 1933 ratification of the 20th Amendment shortened the interregnum from four months to two and one half months. Second, the policy of the president or the president's party has been to some extent discredited by electoral defeat. Third, the attention of the public and media is focused on the incoming president. An earlier study in Presidential Studies Quarterly found that in the Johnson, Ford, and Carter interregna, nearly 90 percent of print media coverage focused on the incoming administration.(8)

Given these conditions, how can departing presidents be expected to act? Having visited America in the 1880s, British scholar James Bryce wrote matter of factly that "an outgoing President is a weak President."(9) Although later works also did not attempt to systematically study the behavior of departing presidents, they do assert a common belief that departing presidents will avoid activity on important, controversial issues.(10) This article refines this position somewhat. It is expected that departing presidents will be occupied by longstanding, controversial issues--they will think about them; they will contemplate proposals to solve them; they will want to make a mark in history. However, the constraints on departing presidents are too cumbersome to allow decisive action.

Conversely, it is expected that departing presidents will act to complete routine, minor matters--they will sign routine bills; they will make nominations for open positions. In short, they will want to "give the incoming President as clean a slate as possible."(11) The clean slate metaphor would also seem to apply to certain types of important policy areas. Presidents would seem most likely to act decisively on issues that began or peaked in their administration. If the problem started on his desk, the president will be more inclined to finish it.

The second aspect of the theory of presidential behavior considers the impact of actions taken during the interregnum. Do they matter? Certain conditions would seem to affect the ability of the president to generate an important policy impact. First, because the incoming administration is in the spotlight, if it were to oppose a policy of the outgoing administration it would constitute an important setback to the departing president. Second, actions not requiring congressional approval are well-suited for a president who lacks the time for coalition building. Third, it would seem that the power of interregnum presidents has been diminished by the 20th Amendment which reduced their time in office.

With respect to substantive policy areas, it is hypothesized that the interregnum president will have a greater impact on foreign policy than on domestic policy. The overriding impression of the vigorous debate about the relative strengths of the president and Congress in foreign and domestic policy is that of a president much stronger in foreign policy.(12) Even Lee Hamilton, former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a 1988 Presidential Studies Quarterly article, characterized the president as having "unassailable preeminence in foreign policy."(13) It should then be expected that the interregnum president who wishes to act alone Will have more success in foreign than in domestic policy. In addition, the likely presence during the interregnum of an "emaciated body of domestic support" that underpins the "two presidencies thesis"(14) suggests that interregnum presidents would have more success in gaining congressional approval for foreign policy.


To test this theory, it is necessary to establish a tangible way in which to measure the activity of a...

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