For tonight's State of the Union address, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has been named the designated survivor. It sounds straight out of a spy novel, but the designated survivor is a real role in Washington. For momentous occasions that require the president and pretty much every top-level official in the cabinet to be in one room, the designated survivor stands by, heavily guarded at a remote and undisclosed location, prepared to take over as president in the event that something happens to the nation's top leaders. A prime example of such an occasion is the State of the Union address, where Obama and the entire presidential line of success will be in attendance. But still, what exactly does all of this mean, and how did it come about?
Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, if the incumbent president dies, leaves office, or is removed from office, the appointment of an acting president follows a specific line of succession. Under the act, the order is as follows: president, vice president, the speaker of the house (could anyone really get used to saying "President Boehner"?), and then the president pro tempore of the Senate, who is currently Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. There are even contingencies after the Senate president pro tempore, but the chances of all of these figures becoming available are extremely low.
But not impossible. And that's where the designated survivor comes in. In the case of a catastrophic event that kills everyone in the presidential line of succession — a fear that's been amplified since 9/11 — the designated survivor would step in and take over as acting president. It's a morbid concept, but as the old saying goes, "Better safe than sorry." Here is everything you need to know about the most important person we hope to never need.
Who Is Qualified To Be Designated Survivor?
The designated survivor is a member of the cabinet selected by the White House chief of staff to keep away from the Capitol during an event that requires top cabinet members to attend. Only cabinet members who are eligible to become president are chosen, meaning natural-born citizens who are over the age of 35.
What Will Happen To The Designated Survivor During The Speech?
During the speech, the designated survivor will be provided presidential-level security, taken to an undisclosed location at a safe distance from the Capitol, and accompanied by a military aide holding the nuclear football, which contains the president's nuclear launch codes. In other words, the designated survivor is essentially the most important person in America for those few hours.
What's The History Of The Practice?
The concept of the designated survivor dates back to the Cold War, when the U.S. was in constant anxiety over a potential nuclear attack. If you think about it, the profession has "doomsday" written all over it. The practice was somewhat lax between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. According to ABC News, one past designated survivor hosted a pizza party at the White House during the State of the Union address. But after 9/11, security surrounding the designated survivor was significantly increased.
Who Are Some Of Obama's Past Designated Survivors?
Some of Obama's past designated survivors include Attorney General Eric Holder, Energy Secretaries Ernest Moniz and Steven Chu, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
How Does The Designated Survivor Prepare To Become President?
For security reasons, the exact procedures of the designated survivor are kept secret, but past individuals have revealed that they were shown the White House Situation Room and briefed on continuity of government.
One designated survivor for George W. Bush, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, described his process to ABC News. After being taken out of Washington by helicopter to an undisclosed location, Nicholson was briefed and then served a "fabulous meal" by the White House Mess. He added:
They let you know several days ahead of time that you're going to be the designated survivor. Just nuanced conversations about if this did happen, what would be the first things you should do. Of course, one of those was make a statement to the nation as this temporary president ... so we worked on that. We did drills and practiced some of those things. We would role-play and in that role I was the president.Images: Getty Images (5)