In Europe it's called the interregnum — the time when the throne is vacant between two reigns. The American constitution allows for no such vacuum of authority and leaves it to the departing and arriving presidents to work things out. The transition used to last until March 4, which was alright in quieter times. During the Depression years, it was changed to Jan. 20, which may still be too long under current conditions.
The transition is symbolized by the meeting of the incoming and outgoing presidents, who agree before cameras to a seamless changing of the guard — which seldom happens. And least of all in an ideological sea change.
For one thing, the outgoing regime tries to leave its mark past its departure date by quietly transferring some political appointees into the civil service. The Interior Department says this has happened in at least six cases. But an official adds that the Obama White House can always change that back — which sounds like the embarrassed plea of the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Then, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the Bush administration has adopted several hot-button regulatory changes sought by business groups. That was among a flurry of late executive orders, many of which will probably be rescinded once President Obama is in office.
What remains to be seen is how many pardons and writs of clemency President Bush issues in the hours before he turns off the lights in the Oval Office. In his last day in office, President Clinton issued 141 pardons, including one to fugitive financier Marc Rich. That has come back to haunt him as the president-elect considers naming Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, secretary of state.
All in all, the presidential transition is an untidy thing that does not add much dignity to our governing process.