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What makes for a successful transfer of presidential power?

November 10, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST
The peaceful transfer of power is a pillar of American democracy. As Donald Trump begins his journey, Judy Woodruff takes a look at past transitions with presidential historian Jon Meacham and editor-in-chief of Time Magazine Nancy Gibbs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A peaceful transfer of power is a pillar of American democracy. As President Obama welcomed president-elect Trump in the Oval Office, we take a look back at how these transitions have gone in the past with Jon Meacham, author of “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.” And Nancy Gibbs, she’s editor in chief at “TIME” magazine and the co-author of “The Presidents Club.”

And we welcome both of you back to the program.

Jon Meacham, to you first.

I know we don’t have a lot to go on, just that short photo opportunity in the Oval Office, but how did it look to you that this transition is getting off?

JON MEACHAM, Presidential Historian: Well, better than expected, given that 48 hours ago they were at each other’s throats. So the bar has been lowered in many ways in this campaign. And so why wouldn’t that be true in terms of a transition?

I think that President Obama has hit all the right notes. I think that president-elect Trump has hit all the right notes since election night, as did Secretary Clinton. And so I think that this may be the shortest honeymoon ever, but at least it’s a period of some tranquility after the storm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nancy Gibbs, as someone who has studied transitions going back for many presidents, how does this one look so far?

NANCY GIBBS, Editor in Chief, Time Magazine: Well, it looks actually like a pattern we have seen before, which is two politicians of different parties who have been very tough as political opponents who very quickly come together when they find themselves in a new position.

This tradition goes back to 1952, when Harry Truman invited the newly elected Dwight Eisenhower to the White House after Eisenhower’s election. Those two men could not stand each other and were barely on speaking terms. They were very, very bitter rivals. And yet Truman, who himself had taken office with no preparation so suddenly when Franklin Roosevelt died, felt, in the nuclear age it was just too dangerous for anyone to walk into the Oval Office unprepared.

And so he invited Eisenhower to come, briefed him, had the Cabinet secretaries meet. Eisenhower in turn did the same thing with John F. Kennedy, once again a young man from a different party whom Eisenhower had very little respect for. But they respect the office.

And they particularly respect the demands of it. And they want to make sure that the guy who is coming in to take over understands just what it is that he’s facing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a lot of us don’t realize that it’s been — there’s been bitterness going back for a long time.

Jon Meacham, what are examples of what — of a transition that has worked well, where it has — where the two sides have had to overcome some challenges, but they have made it happen?

JON MEACHAM: Well, I don’t think we have to go back very far. I think, if you go back to the dismal autumn of 2008, when a lot of people believed that the economy, I think, as President Bush put it at the time, that the sucker could go down, and there were an enormous number of emergency financial steps that had to be taken.

And we have heard both President Obama and President Bush talk about how smooth that transition was. And I think, as Nancy says, it speaks well of the office.

The other factor here, I think, is politicians admire vote-getters, even if they disagree with everything that they did to get the votes. And so there’s a certain clubbiness here, that they respect strength, they respect those who master the world that they have mastered.

And I suspect — though President Obama might not admit it, I suspect that somewhere in his being, there’s a curiosity about this man who has shaken up American politics so profoundly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Nancy Gibbs? What are some of the factors that might lend themselves to a more successful handover of power?

NANCY GIBBS: One thing I think that is important to bear in mind is, some part of this is very practical about the nuts and bolts of a smooth transition, not just at the level of president to president, but Cabinet members, White House staff members, national security officials, of having as much communication as possible, so that that goes smoothly.

But some part of this is theater. And I think particularly after a very bitter campaign of the kind that we just saw, there’s a recognition that the country needs to see this, that the world needs to see it, that the country comes first and the well-being of the people comes first, and to see these two teams working together is an important part of sort of national reconciliation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jon Meacham, how much has that played into transition in the past, because — especially right now, these two men have their own differences, but we’re watching a country that’s still very divided.

JON MEACHAM: Oh, absolutely.

The first peaceful transfer from one party in power to the other party was in 1800. And it was a very close-run thing because of a controversy with the election between Adams and Jefferson, and they were insistent that the constitutional order clean up that anomaly in the Electoral College and make this transition happen. That set a pattern.

One of the remarkable things, when you think about it, is that we had in the Union states an election in 1864. There are certain — to go to Nancy’s point, there are certain rituals that send an important cultural and political signal that the body politic is intact.

It may be fighting each other. One arm may be trying to punch the other fist, but, ultimately, it is one country, and the political order is bigger than any one person.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Nancy Gibbs, if you’re Donald Trump, the president-elect, what are you looking for from President Obama and the people around him? And, conversely, what is President Obama looking for from the Trump team?

NANCY GIBBS: Well, you know, this is going to be so interesting to watch, because, naturally, anyone who has just been elected president may think that they have all the answers and have no need for advice, that they have just had the affirmation of the country that they are ready to lead.

And they very quickly discover how much they don’t know. And so I think that it was interesting that president-elect Trump today talked about turning to President Obama for counsel. And there’s a long tradition of that as well, again, from former political adversaries, from people who don’t share any partisan views in common, and yet recognize the need to be talking to each other and the resource that former presidents can be.

So, I suspect, you know, president-elect Trump would like to know that he can call President Obama in months to come when he needs to. And I think President Obama would like to know that that phone line is open, as it has been in the past between sitting presidents and their predecessors.

JON MEACHAM: The real…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jon Meacham, go ahead.

JON MEACHAM: Sorry.

The real danger, as Nancy is saying, is hubris. And President Kennedy didn’t have — Nancy mentioned Eisenhower didn’t think much of Kennedy. Well, Kennedy didn’t think much of Eisenhower, thought he was too bureaucratic, the decision-making was too militaristic, owed too much to Eisenhower’s military command years.

Kennedy comes in, wants a freewheeling style, empowers the CIA, empowers kind of a more improvisational decision-making world. And that led him to the Bay of Pigs in April of 1961. And what does he do after that disaster? He picks up the phone and he invites Dwight Eisenhower to come to Camp David, and they do it all again.

They sort of had — they had to have a second transition to some extent. And so I think that’s the great cautionary example. These men need to listen to each other and learn quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what’s for sure is, all eyes are on the two of them.

And we thank both of you, Jon Meacham, Nancy Gibbs. We appreciate it.

JON MEACHAM: Thanks, Judy.

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