By Norma Staaf
As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, having recently witnessed the swearing in of our 46th President, Joseph R. Biden, it is a good time to reflect on what it takes to become president and how we got here. Presidents’ Day is a federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February. Although it began as a celebration of the birthday of George Washington, and later Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, both were combined in 1971 into one holiday. Over time it morphed into a day to recognize all presidents.
What does it take to be president? The Constitution sets a pretty low threshold for who can be elected: a natural-born citizen who has attained the age of 35 years and has been a U.S. resident for 14 years.
Past work experience
Presidents have come from different backgrounds, but looking at the past 60 years, nearly all previously worked in elected government leadership roles. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton served as state governors. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson served as vice presidents. Obama was a U.S. Senator and a state senator. Biden was a longtime U.S. Senator before becoming vice president.
Several other modern-era presidents served in the military — Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, both Bushes, Ford and Reagan. Several had law degrees, including Ford, Clinton and Obama. Donald J. Trump was the first president in recent times with no previous experience as an elected official or in the military.
Climbing the ladder to the White House
Let’s look at how we choose our candidates. In 2016, Republicans had 17 major Republican candidates. In 2020, Democrats had a whopping 27 candidates. The number of candidates is quickly winnowed down after the first primaries or caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina because few can afford to stay in the race if they aren’t in the top early on. This means that people in three relatively small, lightly populated states have outsized influence in determining who stays in the race. Why do we do it that way? Should we instead let the voters in more populous states like Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, New York, Texas and California begin the process of evaluating the candidates? Our nine most populous states represent a combined total of more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, yet none of them weigh in early in the process.
Discontent after an election
Once the election is held and votes are counted, there are often some recounts and legal challenges. Following that, the U.S. has a history of a peaceful transfer of power. Sadly, in 2021 this did not happen. The losing candidate never conceded, even after losing more than 60 court challenges and several recounts which didn’t change the tally. Department of Justice investigations of fraud claims found no evidence that would change the results. An armed mob took over the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, temporarily stopping the counting of electoral votes. Later that night, after order was restored, Biden’s victory was confirmed.
Before this year, the last time an outgoing president did not attend a new president’s inauguration (except for in cases of sickness, death or resignation) was in 1869, when Andrew Johnson didn’t attend Ulysses Grant’s inauguration. Johnson was angry that Grant had supported Johnson’s impeachment the previous year. Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch argued that by not going, Johnson would “look small.” Instead of attending, Johnson stayed in the White House signing bills and pardons until his term ended at noon.
After the 2000 election, Al Gore conceded to George Bush after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a stop to a ballot recount in Florida. It was one of the closest elections in history, hinging on one state, Florida, where candidates were separated by a few hundred votes when the recount was stopped. Gore said, “While I strongly disagree with the court’s position, I accept it.” He added, “While we yet hold — and do not yield — our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America, and we put country before party. We will stand together behind our new president.”
Staaf is a substitute at the Kamiah Community Library and a freelance writer. She lives with her husband Nick Hazelbaker in the hills near Harpster, where they manage natural resources on their land.