In his new memoir, Barack Obama reveals that there was a terrorist threat on his Inauguration Day. As he addressed the nation, he was prepared to interrupt himself to read evacuation instructions for the millions gathered on the National Mall. Obama had been in the job just seconds, and he was experiencing his first stomach drop—the possibility of a mass-casualty event.
The presidency comes at you fast; it helps if you prepare. This would seem to be axiomatic. If there were any doubts, the devastating consequences of the Trump administration’s botched response to COVID-19, with its improvisation and management-by-chaos, should have dispelled them. Nevertheless, Donald Trump is blocking President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to prepare for the presidency, departing from a bipartisan tradition of smoothing the way for successors. This is dangerous and burdensome. Trump’s tenure is set to end in a way that highlights his critics’ central claim: that his impulses make him incapable of carrying out the obligations of the presidency.
Transitions are hard for newly elected presidents, even under normal circumstances. “Almost all of them have foreign-policy ideas they come with,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told me when I interviewed her for my book on the presidency. “On day one, ‘I will,’ and on day one, they don’t, because it’s so complicated. They’re almost all frustrated because the world doesn’t accord with the world that they thought they were going to be able to shape. And you really can’t see that from the outside. Then you get in there and the stuff starts flowing.”