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Lame-duck presidentsd: a US oddity

By Richard L. StroutStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1980



Washington

Unlike every other democratic system, the United States has a transitional gap after an election in which often a repudated president sits in the White House while a crisis erupts.

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A classic example was the closing of every bank in America by Franklin D. Roosevelt's proclamation at 1 o'clock in the morning Sunday, March 15, 1933, after the repudiated Herbert Hoover had lingered on as lame-duck president for four months and the economic crash worsened.

A constitutional amendment (the 20th) cut down this lame-duck, no-man's time to about 75 days (from Nov. 4 to Jan. 20). What it means is that if Ronald Reagan defeats President Carter this week, Mr. Carter nevertheless will remain in office until January: He will offer a budget, annual economic report, probably make a State of the Nation address and -- if the hostage negotiations develop with Iran -- theoretically handle them, all before Mr. Reagan takes office.

The hostage negotiations could, conceivably, be as controversial and exciting as -- though far different from -- the economic crisis that developed in 1932- 1933.

Here is the record.

Seven times, including the Wilson-Taft election of 1913, a rival party took control of the White House after a presidential election. There has been a national or international crisis at nearly every one. Generally, antangonisms and disagreements have been exacerbated by the campaign. Nevertheless, the repudiated, lame-duck president operates the government until his successor takes over:

1913 -- Woodrow Wilson defeated William Howard Taft in November. At that time the new president wasn't sworn in until March 4. A Mexican revolution occured in February 1913 and a US consulate was burned. The new president sat on the sidelines.

1921 -- Warren G. Harding defeated Wilson in the midst of the unresolved debate over ratification of the Versailles- League of Nations Treaty. The debate went on during and after the election, but Harding ultimately turned the treaty down.

1933 -- Roosevelt vs. Hoover. The stock market crashed in October 1929. Financial panic swept the country, and in the interval before Inauguration Day, March 4, most banks closed. Hoover and Roosevelt couldn't agree on a common action. The 20th Amendment became effective in October 1933. It moved up Inauguration Day from March 4 to Jan. 20, eliminating about two months of the transition period but leaving the present 75 days: an interval in which the US, in effect, has two presidents.

1953 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower followed Harry Truman (inaugurated Jan. 20). The Korean war continued.

1961 -- John F. Kennedy followed Mr. Eisenhower. On Jan. 3 Eisenhower broke US relations with Cuba.

1969 -- Richard Nixon followed Lyndon B. Johnson: City unrest in the transition interval continued; US-North Vietnam peace talks in Paris bogged down.

1977 -- Carter followed Gerald Ford: In the transition period economic figures declined.

1980-81 -- Hostage crisis?