Barack Obama is proposing a bailout for the auto industry.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether a bailout is wise or not and focus on the precedent Obama is setting. He is trying to shape policy as if he were president, but he has no official power as yet, beyond being a senator.
I can think of no precedent for this. The two most contentious transitions were in 1860-61 and 1932-33. In the former, Abraham Lincoln was urged to endorse the Crittenden Compromise or in some other manner placate the seceding states. He did not, because he could not compromise on limiting slavery to the states where it currently existed, and he knew that the seceding states would not settle for anything less.
In the latter, Franklin Roosevelt ignored calls that he work with Herbert Hoover. In part he did so because they were unlikely to come to any agreement and in part because he did not want any association with Hoover’s actions or policies. It made for a long five months and stimulated the quick passage of the 20th amendment, which shifted the inauguration to January 20.
So Obama is making a new path here. Why? The stated reason is the imminent risk of collapse in the auto industry.
However, another reason can be seen by comparing his situation with FDR’s. Hoover was not pushing for new programs to aid the situation. His philosophy was opposite that of the far more activist Roosevelt. Roosevelt could have a free hand in addressing the issue because Hoover was not foreclosing any options by actions of his own.
In the current situation, Obama is faced with an activist president who is shaping a long-term response. That may or may not be good for the country, but it certainly poses problems for the president-elect. If Obama does not inject himself, he will be allowing Bush considerable power to shape and limit Obama’s future actions. On the other hand, by actively engaging in policy now, he will be taking at least partial responsibility for the outcome in a situation in which his power is indirect.
It’s a fascinating challenge for everyone involved.
In the long-term, I wonder if one result will be a new constitutional amendment to shorten the interregnum further. Doing that would be difficult, given the way that both political parties and the election process itself are organized. But right now we are witnessing the downside of an election process that can repudiate a president without immediately replacing him.
Jonathan Dresner - 11/13/2008
I don't know that you could shorten the transition at this point without running into the possibility of voting disputes and court challenges lingering so long that no time remains. Maybe those are the bad old days and things will be clearer now, but without either a vastly streamlined political appointment process (there's something like seven thousand political appointments in the federal system!) or an electoral system in which votecounting is a lot more reliable, I think we're doing about as quick a turnaround as possible at this point.