Dangers in Presidential Transitions

October 21, 1988

Report Outline
Special Focus


Regardless of whether Dukakis or Bush wins the November election, his transition to power will not be easy. The transition period is always a difficult one. Between Election Day and the inauguration, the outgoing administration has legal authority but diminished influence, while the new administration has much influence but no authority. And after the inauguration, the dangers associated with presidential transitions actually may be greater.

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At noon on Jan. 20, 1989, less than 11 weeks after his election, the 41st president of the United States will take the oath of office and stride into history. It will take but an instant for the office's immense authority to be lifted from the broad shoulders of his aged predecessor and placed upon his own. But the transition from the Reagan administration to the Dukakis or Bush administration really will have begun much earlier. And it will not be over until the new administration finally defines and establishes itself, which may be weeks or even months after Inauguration Day. All new administrations hope “to hit the ground running,” but none ever fully succeeds and some stumble badly. This transition, like previous ones, will be a time of opportunity and hope—but also, perhaps, a time of missed opportunities and even danger.

Before the election, the candidate and his advisers are too preoccupied with winning to spend much time thinking about governance. After the election, the president-elect and his associates are elated and exhausted. But they are suddenly faced with the urgent need to begin forming a new administration and, in just a few short months, governing the nation. Campaign promises and aspirations—at least some of them—must now be translated into reality. Hundreds of officials must be chosen, and the search for them is often frantic and chaotic.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Executive Powers and the Presidency
Feb. 24, 2006  Presidential Power
Nov. 15, 2002  Presidential Power
Feb. 02, 2001  The Bush Presidency
Jun. 20, 1997  Line-Item Veto
Jun. 14, 1996  First Ladies
Oct. 21, 1988  Dangers in Presidential Transitions
Jun. 10, 1988  The Quandary of Being Vice President
Jan. 06, 1984  Presidential Advisory Commissions
Jul. 28, 1978  Presidential Popularity
Feb. 13, 1976  Evaluating Presidential Performance
Dec. 12, 1975  Presidential Protection
Jul. 11, 1973  Presidential Reorganization
Mar. 07, 1973  Presidential Accountability
Sep. 24, 1971  Presidential Diplomacy
Nov. 11, 1970  Vice Presidency
Oct. 02, 1968  Presidential Power
Mar. 14, 1966  War Powers of the President
Nov. 23, 1960  Transfer of Executive Power
Apr. 04, 1956  Vice Presidency
Oct. 15, 1952  Change of Presidents
Jun. 09, 1950  President and Mid-Term Elections
Oct. 20, 1948  Federal Patronage
Mar. 24, 1948  The South and the Presidency
Dec. 05, 1947  Military Leaders and the Presidency
Apr. 16, 1947  Veto Power of the President
Sep. 20, 1945  Succession to the Presidency
Sep. 12, 1940  The War Powers of the President
Feb. 11, 1938  Emergency Powers of the President
Jan. 06, 1938  The Power to Declare War
Dec. 28, 1937  Extension of the Veto Power
Dec. 28, 1936  Limitation of the President's Tenure
Mar. 12, 1935  The President and the Congress
Dec. 16, 1932  The Veto Power of the President
May 28, 1931  Presidential Commissions
Oct. 23, 1928  Presidential Appointments and the Senate
Mar. 21, 1928  Business Conditions in Presidential Years
Jan. 20, 1927  The Monroe Doctrine
Mar. 18, 1925  The President's Power of Appointment
Sep. 10, 1923  The President's Position on Patronage
Powers and History of the Presidency