Rupert Cornwell: This is no time to be waiting for the 44th President

Amid this fast-moving global economic crisis, Washington's interregnum feels dangerously long
Click to follow

Do you worry that during this US presidential transition, no one is in charge of the world's richest country, at the most perilous moment for the global economy in half a century? If so, console yourself. It was even worse back in 1932-33, during the interregnum between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, at arguably the darkest moment of the Great Depression.

Right now, comparisons between FDR and Barack Obama are de rigueur – and understandably so. History never repeats itself exactly, but the parallels are striking. Both are Democrats. Both won power amid financial and economic turmoil, when an incumbent Republican was hugely unpopular. Roosevelt's victory in 1932 was a watershed election. This year's may be similarly viewed by historians – one that marks a fundamental leftward shift in the national mood, and a new era of interventionist government.

And, of course, both men had to wait a while before entering the Oval Office. But there is one big difference between then and now. A transition today lasts roughly 10 weeks, from early November until inauguration day, 20 January. In FDR's day, the hiatus stretched on for six further weeks, all the way to 4 March, but even the modern truncated version feels like an eternity.

Plainly, the US cannot adopt the British system, where a defeated PM is evicted from No 10 the day after the election. A presidential inauguration is also a coronation, and cannot be rushed. Nor does the US have a permanent mandarin class of civil servants like Britain. New appointments here stretch deep into the government bureaucracy. Nominees who must be vetted by the FBI and approved by Congress number 1,000 or more.

Even so, France has a presidential system, yet the transition there takes 10 days. The paradox is that a US president's ability to make policy is greatest in the first months of his administration. Never has a new administration been more fervently awaited than now. But the odds are that even the admirably organised Obama won't have a full team in place to carry out his new policies for maybe a year.

Beyond doubt, this is the most delicate transition in the US since 1932; some would say it is even more delicate. FDR faced a depression, but at least the country was not also embroiled in two foreign wars. Back then, moreover, government was far smaller, and events moved more slowly. In this globalised era, economic crises spread far more quickly and lethally. The financial collapse of a country, or the accelerating slide of a national car industry towards bankruptcy, does not defer to the stately rhythms of the American constitution.

To an extent, lessons have been learnt. Obama in 2008, as FDR in 1932, were both attractive politicians in their own right. But the main reason they won was because they were not the incumbent. Obama did not run against George Bush, but his most potent campaign argument was that John McCain offered "four more years of Bush". Back in 1932, Hoover campaigned relatively little, because it was simply too dangerous (as might have been the case with Bush had he been seeking re-election this year).

The difference, however, is that Roosevelt barely pretended to co-operate with Hoover to tackle the crisis that grew during his transition; indeed in early February 1933, as the unemployment rate hit 25 per cent and dozens of banks were closing every week, FDR found time for a restorative 10-day cruise off Florida.

In truth, the pair didn't much care for each other. During the four-month transition, the outgoing and incoming presidents met just twice. At one point Hoover told his Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, that Roosevelt was "a very dangerous and contrary man", and that he would never talk to him alone again. That seems to have suited Roosevelt fine. After all, why be tainted by an utterly discredited administration that's going to be around for months yet?

And the political calculations apparently did not end there. In his 2006 book about Roosevelt's first 100 days, The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter quotes James Warburg – scion of the German-Jewish-American banking family and FDR's closest economic adviser – as saying that Roosevelt and his team "wanted it [the economic situation] to get as bad as it could get before FDR came to office", so he could come in "on the turn, rather than amid a continuing downward spiral".

Perish the notion that Obama entertains such base thoughts. In fact, he and Bush seem to be working fairly well together. Within a week of the election, the president-elect paid an usually early visit to the White House. At every major government department a transition team was set up months ago, and is now liaising with Obama's people. The FBI security vetting process has also been speeded up, so a new cabinet may be up and running sooner than usual.

Even so, this is an extraordinarily delicate moment for the future 44th President of the United States. Politically Obama could not be more different from Bush. Obviously he doesn't want to be tainted by too close an association with an incumbent whom he lambasted every day on the campaign trail, let alone be drawn into co-authorship of Bush policies. Nor does he yet have a reinforced Democratic Congress to do his bidding. That too must wait until January. Indeed, now that Obama and vice-president-elect Joe Biden are resigning their Senate seats, the Democrats will no longer even have a majority in that chamber for the lame-duck session on Capitol Hill that starts tomorrow.

On the other hand, the candidate who promised bipartisan, non-confrontational government cannot now follow FDR's example and simply let Bush stew in his own juice. This crisis is moving too fast. Almost certainly, the outgoing administration will have to make crucial decisions during these last nine weeks – decisions that could tie the hands of President Obama.

Yesterday's emergency economic summit in Washington was one example. During the 1932 transition, Hoover tried to involve Roosevelt in preparations for a much-anticipated world economic conference, set for June 1933 in London, to tackle the Great Depression. FDR, naturally, would have nothing to do with it. Obama's approach has been more nuanced. He didn't attend the summit but stayed home in Chicago, and, we are told, didn't even talk by phone to the visiting foreign leaders. But he did have a couple of representatives at the discussions to keep him fully apprised of developments.

Meanwhile, an even starker choice looms, that will test this fragile interregnum to the limit. Obama, it seems, favours a bailout of General Motors. Bush does not. If nothing is done, GM could be out of business by Inauguration Day. Even FDR never faced a choice like that.