On the Way Out: Interregnum Presidential Activity

By Klotz, Robert J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

On the Way Out: Interregnum Presidential Activity


Klotz, Robert J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The presidential interregnum refers to the activities of the outgoing administration during the period between the election and the inauguration of a new president. A presidential interregnum can be contrasted with a presidential transition which covers the same time period but refers to the preparations for office of the incoming administration. Thus, in the study of presidential transitions, departing presidents are interesting actors only to the extent which their activity facilitates or hinders the assumption of power by their successors. In adopting an exclusive focus on the departing presidents, this study takes the opposite perspective. Incoming presidents are interesting actors only to the extent which their activity facilitates or hinders the policy implementation of the departing presidents.

One similarity between this study and studies of presidential transitions is the focus on elections in which presidential power was transferred from one party to the other. By limiting the study to instances where the party holding the presidency changed, the assumption is that the transfer of power to a different party is different than other transfers. Certainly, the departing presidents believe that the assumption is correct. Herbert Hoover attributed special problems to party-change interregnums: "The four months' interregnum between election and inauguration (since shortened to two months) had always been a particularly difficult period, especially when there was a change of political parties, with all the overcharged campaign emotions."(1)

General Presidential Perspective

Before beginning evaluation of presidential interregnum activity, it is important to obtain a general sense of the state of mind of presidents during the interregnum. Oddly, interregnum presidents often have a sense of relief. They are almost happy to be leaving office. This is not entirely surprising because electoral defeat has often been a product of serious problems in the nation. These problems can make a demanding job even more difficult. The understandable happiness of James Buchanan in leaving the impending Civil War to his successor is clear as he told Lincoln: "My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed."(2) Under less trying circumstances, William Taft expressed that "The nearer I get to the inauguration of my successor, the greater relief I feel."(3)

Whether they were happy or sad about leaving the presidency, all departing presidents shared the belief that they were responsible for conducting the presidency until the moment when their successor was officially inaugurated. This may seem a self-evident point. However, interregnum presidents could conceivably relinquish power. In fact, Woodrow Wilson considered one such scheme as he faced defeat in 1916:

What would be my duty to do were Mr. Hughes elected? Four months

would lapse before he could take charge of the affairs of the

government, and during those four months I would be without such

moral backing from the nation as would be necessary to steady and

control our relations with other governments. I would be known to be

the rejected, not the accredited, spokesman of the country; and yet

the accredited spokesman would be without legal authority to speak

for the nation.(4)

Wrestling with the issue, Wilson contemplated appointing Hughes secretary of state and then having both himself and his vice president resign so that Hughes could assume the presidency. However, four years later when he encountered the situation, Wilson never seriously considered relinquishing power.(5)

Other interregnum presidents contemplated their legal authority as president. They all arrived at the same conclusion. It is a view of legal responsibility perhaps best articulated by Harry Truman while addressing the nation during his interregnum: "I have not sought to thrust upon him nor has he sought to take--the responsibility which must be mine until twelve o'clock noon on January twentieth. …

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