The Washington Post

With Obama and Biden both overseas, who’s in charge?

As President Obama departs for Israel Tuesday night and Vice President  Biden returns from the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis in Rome, there will be about a 20-minute window when the nation's two highest-ranking elected officials will not be on U.S. soil.

163295430_image_1024w (Alex Wong/Getty Images)


Luckily, there is no reason to panic. This brief gap does not trigger a succession crisis, as White House officials are quick to point out.

"The fact remains that President Obama is President of the United States everywhere he goes.  Vice President Biden is Vice President of the United States everywhere that he goes," White House spokesman Josh Earnest explained to reporters Friday. "There’s no reason that that should in any way impact the day-to-day running of the country."

Biden spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff declined to comment on the matter, though it's worth noting Biden did leave Rome earlier than expected Monday, bringing his arrival time at Joint Andrews Base about an hour closer to the president's 8 p.m. departure from the same site.

Now, this is the first time this has happened during Obama's tenure as president. American University distinguished professor of history Allan Lichtman noted this is fairly unusual: As he observed in an interview, "Before Franklin Roosevelt, it used to be very unusual for presidents to be out of the country at all."

"However briefly out of the country together, this shows some second-term confidence on Obama’s part," Lichtman added, "and of course it raises the question of who’s watching the store at home. I’m sure they’re hoping it’s not [House Speaker] John Boehner."

Boehner's office declined to comment on the fact that he might spend a quarter of an hour as the top American official on U.S. soil, or how he might take advantage of that brief home court advantage.

The fact that this situation has attracted so little attention, said Princeton University history and public affairs professor Julian Zelizer, shows how Americans are more focused on domestic issues than national security concerns.

"We've traveled a far distance from the months after 9/11 when the media, and the public, paid close attention to where the president and vice president where at any given moment," Zelizer wrote in an e-mail. "With both leaders out of the country, most of the country is more concerned about the next jobs report or news about the gun legislation than they are worried about the exact precautions that have been taken to make sure our leaders are safe. This is in large part a result of some sense of security that has settled in during the past few years."


Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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Juliet Eilperin · March 19, 2013

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