The Man Who Can't Wait to Be President
He's lined up a cabinet of stars, and hired a White House team more glamorous than the cast of The West Wing. He cracks proper jokes at his press conferences, and has even made peace with his enemies. The Obama presidency is off to a flying start - beforeit's even begun. Rupert Cornwell reports from Washington
Back in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was seeking re-election as the United States was about to make a crucial decision whether to enter the First World War. Anxious to avoid a devastating void in authority had he lost, he drew up a secret plan. In the event of defeat, Wilson decided, he would at once appoint his victorious Republican opponent as Secretary of State. The lame duck President and Vice-president would then resign and the new Secretary of State would, as the constitution stipulated, become president.
In the event, Wilson won, but the problem of America's protracted and unwieldy presidential transitions is still with us. "The United States has only one government and one president at a time," declared Barack Obama at his first public appearance after defeating John McCain on 4 November, showing the appropriate deference to George W Bush who, after all, would be calling the White House home - and controlling the country's nuclear launch codes - until 12 noon on 20 January.
But that was then. This is now, more than five weeks later, with America tumbling deeper by the day into its worst economic crisis in decades. Bush is still in the White House (though tangible signs of his presence are hard to detect).
In an odd way, however, Obama is right. The US does have only one government. Except that, in many respects, it is headed by himself and operates not in Washington, DC but out of the high-rise building just off Michigan Avenue in the heart of Chicago where the President- elect has his transition office.
Transitions are strange interludes. Not for the US the brutal handover customary in Britain, where the outgoing prime minister's belongings are hauled out of the back door of No 10 at the very moment his conqueror enters the front door. In America, the process - part change of government and part coronation - takes 11 stately weeks. Never, though, has it seemed as excruciatingly drawn out as now.
For one thing, of course, no modern president has been as unpopular for as long as George W Bush. For the candidate of his own Republican Party, he was the great unmentionable of the campaign, a Republican incumbent who was requested to stay away from the Republican convention. Today, America pays no attention to him, and cannot wait to be rid of him.
Apart from buying a retirement house in an upscale Republican neighbourhood of Dallas, Bush's activities these days consist of self-justificatory media interviews, and a flurry of eleventh-hour executive orders aimed at extending his influence beyond his departure, and which the Obama team is already studying how to nullify. As he slinks from office, the main speculation surrounding the 43rd President concerns the names of those he will pardon. Any takers for Conrad Black?
But the second reason is much more important. Not since Franklin Roosevelt took over from Herbert Hoover has an interregnum been as fraught with peril - and for similar reasons. This global economic crisis will no more respect the venerable rhythms of the US Constitution than did the Great Depression in 1933. At a moment when everyone - markets, businesses and ordinary workers and consumers alike - looks to government for answers, a sense that there is no functioning government could be disastrous.
That explains why in 2008 the stock market did not stage its habitual "presidential" rally upon Obama's victory. Wall Street did move sharply higher on 4 November itself, but slumped immediately thereafter. Its next gain of note did not come until word leaked that Obama would nominate Timothy Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, to be Treasury Secretary. …