Published November 25, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama is looking very presidential these days. When he makes an announcement, he is ringed by American flags and stands behind a lectern that has a very presidential-looking placard announcing "The Office of the President-Elect."
But the props are merely that. Under the Constitution, there is no such thing as the Office of the President-elect. Technically, Obama will not even become the president-elect until the Electoral College convenes after the second Wednesday in December and elects him based on the results of the Nov. 4 general election, as stated in the Constitution.
So what is Obama's executive authority in the weeks leading to Jan. 20?
In the 11 weeks between Election Day and Inauguration Day, the next president must ensure a smooth transition by selecting political appointees to manage key agencies and offices within the Executive Branch, and by creating the policies that will define the new administration -- all while respecting the authority held by the current president.
The Presidential Transition Act -- created in 1963 and amended in 2000 -- establishes formal provisions for the transition period by outlining training and other assistance that the president-elect and his team of advisers can receive as they prepare to assume office.
The amended bill -- co-sponsored by lawmakers including former Sen. Fred Thompson, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Sen. Dick Durbin -- calls for the "training and orientation of high-level presidential appointees," among other things, as well as more efficient background checks to ensure individuals are properly vetted and confirmed for office.
"New administrations face a series of hurdles they must overcome to accomplish this essential task before they can begin to govern," Lieberman told Congress in 1999 while arguing in favor of the amended legislation.
The original bill also allowed the president-elect and vice president-elect certain "services and facilities," like suitable office space to conduct transition operations, public funds to pay their staff's salaries and money to transport workers to and from Washington.
Obama has employed over 500 staffers to assist in his transition operations -- working from a nondescript office building in downtown Washington and from locations in his hometown of Chicago.
His transition team has received a budget of $12 million -- $5.2 million of which was allocated by Congress, and the rest from private donations of under $5,000.
As president-elect, Obama is also given the same highly classified intelligence briefings that President Bush receives on a daily basis. And Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden get full Secret Service protection, which Obama also received during the Democratic primaries and general election campaign.
But the "Office of the President-Elect," while critical in building the future government, has no official power -- which Obama himself acknowledged during his victory speech in Chicago on Election Night.
"It is an office -- it's just a quasi-government office for planning the takeover of the government," said Stephen J. Wayne, a professor at Georgetown University's department of government.
"Obama has no formal power as far as the existing government is concerned, but he has a lot of informal influence, which President Bush has encouraged," he added.
Wayne compared the function of the "Office of the President-Elect" to spring training in baseball.
"It doesn't count in the standings, but it does contribute to a team's ability to do well from day one," he said.
The extensive operations and considerable funding for Obama's transition office are not unique. President Bush received $8.5 million to fund his transition team -- a sum that was "unprecedented at the time," according to Georgetown University government professor Chris Hull.
"The Bush administration built their transition team a month before the election was over to make sure it would be a fully-functioning office on November 5," he said.
Despite its lack of formal power, some argue that the "Office of the President-Elect" must maintain an official and authoritative front -- even if just for show. This transition comes at a particularly vulnerable time for the U.S. government in protecting against terrorism -- as evidenced in 1993 when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center as former President Bill Clinton prepared to take office.
"President Bush and President-Elect Obama have stressed together that the times of transition are particularly perilous in terms of terrorist strikes," said Hull. "The President-Elect and his team must appear to maintain confidence."