Anyone at the White House these days is inescapably aware of the gangling wooden skeleton rising noisily from the sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue. The superstructure of poles, planks, and plywood is to be a reviewing stand for the inaugural parade next month of President-elect Ronald Reagan, going up with unsentimental haste under the very nose of the outgoing incumbent.
It is a visible reminder -- for President Carter or anyone else in Washington -- that power is slipping inexorably from a government in office to another in waiting.
Transition government is inevitably a time of exuberant anticipation for some and of melancholy reflection for others.
That inaugural construction looming before the White House may be one reason why the Carters -- breaking the tradition that most presidents spend the last Christmas of their terms in the White House -- have decided to spend theirs in Georgia.
For those in the presidential administration that will succeed Mr. Carter's on Jan. 20, however, these are heady days.
Briefings by Reagan officials tend to attract more press coverage than those at the lame-duck White House. The President-elect's 24-hour telephone line for information-hungry reporters is tied up more often than the White House's, and the tape-recorded listing of activities more extensive.
While announcements of new cabinet selections grab headlines, even the nuances of the transfer of power are chronicled in a column labeled "Transition Notes" that has commandeered the third page of every day's issue of the Washington Post.
A similar transition is occurring at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Senate, after 26 years of Democratic control, is preparing in January for the novelty of Republican rule.
Mountains of cardboard packing boxes in the north wing of the Capitol and the two flanking Senate office buildings stand as monuments to the net turnover of 12 Democratic seats and coteries of staff members.
Facing an uncomfortable demotion from majority leader to minority leader, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia voices the plaintive hope that "the title of minority leader will be forgotten and that the title of 'Democratic leader' will come into vogue."
AS unlikely a prospect as that is, he did manage in the closing hours before Congress adjourned last week to persuade incoming majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee to let him keep his old desk.
Reams of pages in the daily journal of legislative proceedings, the Congressional Record, have been consumed during the session's final weeks by flowery tributes -- few of them actually uttered in the chamber --fice through defeat or voluntary retirement.
Some have been commemorated more permanently by affixing their names to post offices, customs houses, and other federal facilities across the land.
A government office building in New Y ork City has been designated the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, while part of the National Institutes of Health outside Washington has become the Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center.
The departing officials themselves, meanwhile, are beginning their personal transition into private life.
Some, like former White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan and perhaps Vice-President Walter Mondale, will try teaching college in their home states.
Others, such as Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin, who is becoming chairman of the Wilderness Society, a lobbying group, are sticking in Washington.