One way to look at Donald Trump’s presidency is as a series of tests for America’s institutions when the president doesn’t behave the way he’s supposed to.
The latest such test is about the transfer of powers. Just because outgoing presidents have traditionally agreed to cooperate with their successors, it doesn’t mean that they will—and Trump, who is still trying to challenge the result of the election, has clearly no intention of helping Joe Biden get settled in the White House.
Lacking the collaboration of the outgoing team would be problematic in any leadership transition, and it’s all the more so because said team is not going out for another two months. Until Jan. 20, the US presidency is in the so-called lame duck period—a term referring to a duck that cannot keep up with its flock and was borrowed by politics from the stock market, to indicate an outgoing politician whose successor has been elected.
This is unique to the US. In most democracies, following an election the outgoing leader doesn’t continue to run the country as the sitting president does in the US.
As Americans may have noticed, a lot can happen in the 10 to 11 weeks between election and inauguration. So why exactly is there such a long transition period following the US presidential election?
The answer lies in the history of the US democracy—specifically, in its old age. While the current gap between the election and the inauguration might seem long, it was actually much longer—inauguration day was March 4 for John Adams and all the following presidents, until Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The first presidential term began March 4, 1789, when the Confederation Congress officially passed its powers onto the newly elected government. However, George Washington’s inauguration wasn’t held until April 30 of the same year, because (in what would evidently become a recurring American tradition) it had taken longer than anticipated to get the results of the elections. Still, his two terms ended eight years after they began, and his successor was inaugurated on March 4, 1797.
The constitution didn’t initially set a date for the presidential election, but in 1792 Congress passed a law stating that electors would have to be chosen in the 34 days preceding the vote of the electoral college, which was set for the first Wednesday of December. In 1845, Congress then set the Tuesday after the first Monday in November as election day for the first voting state, and later decided all states should vote on the same day.
Throughout this time, the inauguration date remained March 4, with the new presidential term beginning on that day at noon.
At least once, this schedule resulted in a one-day president. In 1849, David Rice Atchison was Senate president, a role that at the time was third in the line of succession to the president. Since March 4 fell on a Sunday, the inauguration of Zachary Taylor was set for March 5, but the term of president James Polk and vice-president George Dallas ended the day before. The Senate elected Atchinson to take over, until the following day’s inauguration.
Having four months between election and inauguration worked very well in the 18th and 19th century, when upending one’s life to move to Washington and run the country was not a task that could be completed as quickly as it is now. It was a risky delay, though. It was during the lame duck period between the election and inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, for instance, that South Carolina seceded from the Union, eventually leading to the Civil War.
By 1932, advancements in technology made it much easier for the president-elect to move to the White House, making a four-month transition period unnecessary. The 20th amendment moved inauguration day to Jan. 20, which is only about a month after the electoral college vote (this year, it will be held on Dec. 14). The change was the result of a long campaign by senator George Norris of Nebraska, who thought it undemocratic that the people had to wait months to see their elected representative become president.
The amendment was ratified in 1933, after the country sat through the delay imposed by Herbert Hoover’s lame duck period on Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms.
The Jan. 20 inauguration date gave the newly elected Congress, whose inauguration is set by the same amendment for Jan. 3, enough time to address the potential issue of an undecided election.
The buffer between the election and the inauguration was maintained to allow the incoming president to prepare the new administration—choosing cabinet members, and other key appointments—and get up to speed with the help of the exiting administration. Except, of course, when it doesn’t intend to help.