Monday, August 11, 2008


This Reuters article about Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson's interview on Meet the Press, aired yesterday, discusses the fact that he will leave office at the end of the Bush Administration in January 2009.

I did not see the interview, but I suspect that the reporter is misinterpreting Paulson's remarks. The secretary was probably merely acknowledging the obvious, rather than providing hard news about his future plans.

Protocol calls for Cabinet members, and other political appointees in the Executive Branch, to immediately submit their resignations to a new president.

Let's look at three different kinds of presidential transitions, and the related considerations regarding appointments:

  1. White House switches parties after an election. (10 of the 18 transitions since 1901 have been of this type.)
  2. New president elected to succeed a president of the same party. (3 of the 18.)
  3. Vice president becomes president upon the death, resignation or removal of a president. (5 of the 18.)
If it's going to be #1, i.e., if Obama wins, there will almost certainly be a complete turnover of the Cabinet. It's not unprecedented for one person to be appointed to office by presidents of different parties, but it's very rare. The last such instance I can think of, involved James Schlesinger. He was appointed secretary of defense by Republican Richard Nixon, and continued in that office when Republican Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon. Later, when the Department of Energy was created during the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter, Carter appointed Schlesinger to head that department. I don't know of any situation where a Cabinet member stayed on in the same job after such a presidential transition.

There's not much recent precedent for what will happen if McCain wins. A president has been elected to succeed a president of the same party only once in the last 80 years (when George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988.) Bush did not retain any Cabinet secretaries in the same jobs, who had served any appreciable period of time in his predecessor's administration. Three appointments that Reagan had made very late in his presidency were carried forward by Bush. For instance, Nicholas Brady, whom Reagan had appointed as secretary of the treasury to replace James Baker, who had left that department to head up the Bush presidential campaign, was kept in that office by Bush.

There was not a complete break, however. Baker, one of the most prominent members of the Reagan Administration, first as White House chief of staff, and later secretary of the treasury, was promoted to secretary of state by Bush. That was not surprising, as the Texan Baker had had longstanding ties to Bush, before he went to work for Reagan.

McCain might be expected to make even more of a clean break with his predecessor's administration. The last three presidents in this category, Bush, Herbert Hoover and William Taft, succeeded popular presidents whom they had served either as vice president or as a Cabinet secretary. McCain, on the other hand, would be following an unpopular president. McCain has, to a large extent, supported George W. Bush's policies from his vantage point in the Senate, but has not served in the Executive Branch.

In type #3, the emergency transition, appointees follow the customary procedure of submitting their resignations; however, they are never accepted immediately. "Accidental presidents" always ask the Cabinet to stay on, at least for the time being.

Such presidents are concerned about presenting an image of continuity in government. Also, as a practical matter, it would be difficult for the White House staff to conduct a candidate search while they're attending to other transition issues. Also, the Senate, which, pursuant to Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, must consent to presidential appointments, would find it difficult to conduct their confirmation process at such a time.

Presidents in this situation have taken different approaches to Cabinet continuity. After Harry Truman succeeded the late Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, he replaced almost all of the Cabinet secretaries by the end of that year. By contrast, when Lyndon Johnson became president on November 22, 1963, following the assassination of John Kennedy, he kept many Kennedy Cabinet appointees on for some years, including four who stayed for the remainder of Johnson's administration, most notably Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

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