The "2012" Scenario and the Failure of U.S. Succession

"2012," a recent blockbuster movie, garnered an impressive $225 million in worldwide box office sales its opening weekend. Millions of people in America and around the world are going to see this epic disaster movie. They got what they were looking for, along with a bonus--an unexpected lesson in the importance of having a good system of presidential succession in the event of a catastrophe.

In the movie "2012," solar flares cause an extreme heating of the earth's core, leading to a shifting of tectonic plates and, ultimately, worldwide destruction. OK, it's a pretty far-fetched concept, but no matter the cause of the catastrophe, the plot revolves in part around how governments handle their responsibility looking to its aftermath--and the answer is "not well."

Those who occupy the uppermost echelons of governments around the world have been made aware of the coming doom from the solar flares, and they construct a plan to deal with the inevitable chaos by putting people on indestructible "arks." Though the arks offer physical safety to those on board, there is no clear course of action to keep any semblance of continuing government up and running to avoid even more chaos.

The doomsday scenario of "2012" may be the stuff of movies, but the questions it raises about governmental continuity are real and troubling.

President Wilson (Danny Glover) makes the selfless but illogical decision not to board an ark and instead "go down with the ship." Wilson dies, as does his vice president, who perishes in a plane crash. In real life, the Speaker would take over as president, but in the movie, there is no sign of him, nor of anyone else in the line of succession. Instead, a White House aide, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), becomes leader of the free world, with the movie offering no explanation of why or how this happens. It is an interesting plot twist, and Platt is a great actor--but a White House aide, even the chief of staff, has never been elected or given even the legitimacy of confirmation by the Senate. Who would blindly follow such a person who has no legal or constitutional authority?

The doomsday scenario of "2012" may be the stuff of movies, but the questions it raises about governmental continuity are real and troubling. We may not face inevitable doom from solar flares, but what impact could, say, a devastating terrorist attack have on the way government operates?

In order to illustrate one of the central problems with our current system of presidential continuity, let's apply our system to the movie. As noted above, had the movie adhered to our actual system, the presidency would have fallen to the Speaker upon the deaths of both the president and vice president. The American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Continuity of Government Commission's 2009 report on presidential succession points out that this can be a major problem, as it can potentially result in the presidency switching party hands: "The death of President Reagan and Vice President Bush could have led to President Tip O'Neill. The death of President Clinton and Vice President Gore might have led to President Newt Gingrich." If such a party switch were to occur as a result of the situation laid out in "2012," there would be even more confusion in the short term, let alone the long-term chaos one might expect to occur from an attack.

The system of presidential succession currently in place could fail were an attack on Washington to occur because everyone in the line of succession is D.C.-based. There is a remote yet real possibility that a physical or biological attack could kill or incapacitate all of them, leaving no road map for a smooth transition. Remarkably little has been done to streamline presidential succession since 9/11, even though many consider the White House to be the intended target of United Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

The existing system of presidential succession leaves the country vulnerable particularly to a targeted attack on the nation's capital. While the destruction in "2012" turns out to be a global event, it is more likely that a dislocating event would be more localized. Without a line of succession that reaches outside of Washington, the country might have no clear leader following an attack. The Continuity of Government Commission report recommends that four or five new federal offices be created and filled by formerly high-ranking government officials, such as former presidents or secretaries of State. These offices would then be placed at the end of the line of succession, acting as a "failsafe" if a devastating attack were to occur. Therefore, if the need arose for one of these former leaders to step in as acting president, they would have the experience needed to serve effectively, keeping the learning curve to a minimum.

The transfer of presidential power in "2012" is clearly not representative of the actual presidential succession process in the United States, but it does serve as a reminder of the weaknesses that do exist in our system. Congress may have a lot on its plate at present, but it is imperative that reforms in the country's presidential succession system are passed. It may not be possible to guarantee that the presidency will be insulated from outside attacks, but in real life, unlike the movies, we can minimize the turmoil caused by such an event.

Jennifer Marsico is a research assistant at AEI.

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