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Bush Prepares to Hand Over Power to Obama

In the United States, a presidential transition is a carefully choreographed affair. In a time of war and economic stress it assumes added importance. The countdown to a new administration as Inauguration Day approaches.

Before Election Day in November, construction crews were already at work in front of the White House, building the reviewing stand for Inauguration Day.

They were getting ready inside the White House too, preparing for the first wartime transfer of power in four decades.

The transition process began before the first votes were cast. By the time the results were in, it was well underway.

"This peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy," Mr. Bush said. "And ensuring that this transition is as smooth as possible is a priority for the rest of my presidency."

The notion of a formal transition process began in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Harry Truman.

Mr. Truman assumed the presidency in 1945, following the death of Franklin Roosevelt.

Political scientist Martha Kumar is an expert on presidential transitions. She says Mr. Truman had been vice-president for only a few months. "And he had not known about a lot of things that were going on in the government, including the development of atomic weapons and of the A-bomb," she said. "So he thought when he was going out that it was very important that whoever came in had a good sense of what was going on in the government."

The consultations between incoming and outgoing administrations grew over the years, and took on new importance following the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States.

President Bush had been president only eight months when the terrorists struck. Only about 30 percent of his national security team was in place.

Congress responded by passing a law to speed up the processing of top appointments - allowing candidates to designate potential staff even before Election Day.

Clay Johnson headed the 2000 Bush transition staff. He says it is essential to get the new national security team in place as quickly as possible. "This wasn't the case eight years ago, [or] 12 years ago. But we are at war," he said. "And we know there are some bad people who are trying to get in here and do us harm."

The transition is complicated by the fact U.S. law requires all presidential records to leave the White House with the outgoing president. Tradition has it the incoming staff walks in on day one and finds empty offices, and empty computers.

Martha Kumar says the Bush team is doing its best to get the incoming administration the information it needs to govern. "The difficulty is everything does leave. The trucks pull up and the records go. But that doesn't mean there can't be copies of records. So there will be some things that the Bush White House will provide to the Obama people," Kumar said.

Personal communication is key. By naming top staffers early, President-elect Barack Obama gave them time to consult with officials in the outgoing administration.

Mr. Obama has said the goal is to have a team that will be ready to govern as soon as he takes office.

"I think it is very important for the American people to understand that we are putting together a first-class team and for them to have clarity that we don't intend to stumble into the next administration," President-elect Obama said. "We are going to hit the ground running."

There is evidence the American public also realizes the high stakes involved in this transition. A new poll shows 68 percent of Americans are following the process - down only slightly from the 78 percent that followed the election.