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Presidential roulette

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by Richard Albert, Associate Professor Boston College Law School, Race-Talk contributor

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Monica Almeida/The New York Times President Barack Obama during a town hall meeting at the Orange County Fairground in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Imagine the unthinkable happens: later this evening, just as the President approaches the podium to deliver his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, terrorists unleash the horror of a weapon of mass destruction in the heart of Washington.

As first responders comb through the devastation of bricks, mortar and bodies, they eventually identify the President and the Vice President. But neither has survived. Who will lead the nation?

The untimely death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Second World War triggered a similar scramble for certainty amid a similarly disastrous crisis of insecurity. Congress ultimately passed a law establishing a line of succession to the presidency.

When the President and Vice President are unable to serve, next in line are the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Then follow each of the Cabinet Secretaries according to departmental seniority, meaning that State, Treasury, and Defense sit atop the list, while Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation and Education fall in the middle with others, and Homeland Security is dead last.

This line of succession is dead wrong. Though the House Speaker and the Senate elder may be schooled in the science of legislation, both are inexpert in the art of popular leadership. Neither is possessed of the presidential timbre necessary to pilot the country in the aftermath of an attack nor imbued with the democratic legitimacy that only a national election can confer. Consigning the Homeland Security chief—the logical successor—to the bottom of the list only confirms the folly of the current presidential succession law, which imprudently privileges politics and partisanship over leadership and competence.

Consider also the “designated survivor.” In anticipation of a doomsday attack, administrations past and present have adopted the practice of sequestering one or more members of the Cabinet in an undisclosed location during State of the Union addresses and other high-profile gatherings.

This past summer, for example, all of the usual dignitaries attended the President’s health care address to a joint session of Congress: Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate President Pro Tem Robert Byrd, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Everyone down the line of succession was present except the person chosen to serve as the designated survivor: Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

But how would Secretary Chu have fared had time and chance catapulted him into the presidency?

No one knows. And that is precisely why the current line of succession is no safer than playing presidential roulette.

Until a crisis descends upon the United States and thrusts someone unexpectedly into the presidency, no one can know whether that person will exhibit the necessary presidential ability to steer the nation though tumultuous times and ultimately back to normalcy. After all, Cabinet secretaries are chosen not for their presidential promise but rather for their professional and political profile.

Until Congress can find a better solution, let me suggest a temporary fix to palliate the lingering uncertainty in the current line of succession.

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