The Designated Survivor

Since the premier of Designated Survivor on ABC starring Kiefer Sutherland many people have been asking “what is a designated survivor? Is it a real component of our national security?” The answer to these questions are simple, the designated survivor is a member or members of the President’s cabinet who do not attend the State of the Union address to ensure the continuity of government in  case of a major attack at  the Capitol that wipes out the line of succession to the presidency. In plain English, the designated survivor becomes the unelected (emphasis added) president of the United States of America in the event that the line of succession to the presidency above him or her is eliminated at the State of the Union address. This practice, a vital part of our national security, dates back to the Cold War era and until the Obama administration details of the “Continuity of government Plan” have been kept a secret.


What is the Presidential line of succession? Who is a part of it? The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 outlines the order of the succession to the presidency of the United States.


  1. Vice President

  2. Speaker of the House

  3. President Pro Tempore of the Senate

  4. Secretary of State

  5. Secretary of Treasury

  6. Secretary of Defense

  7. Attorney General

  8. Secretary of the Interior

  9. Secretary of Agriculture

  10. Secretary of Commerce

  11. Secretary of Labor

  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services

  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

  14. Secretary of Transportation

  15. Secretary of Energy

  16. Secretary of Education

  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs

  18. Secretary of Homeland Security

It’s a long but important list for the continuity of our government. All but one (and in some instances more than one) of these officials attends the State of the Union address. Surprisingly, The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in 2002, is at the bottom of the list. This seems like an odd placement given the Secretary’s importance if an attack were to occur at the Capital.

The order of this list is determined by the date each position, and their departments, were created. Which somewhat explains the seemingly odd and arbitrary order.

 However, this arbitrary may be a blessing in disguise. If an attack were to kill or incapacitate all of the members of the Cabinet, would it be best for the person whose agencies are responsible for investigating and responding to the incident to be taken out of his or her position to lead our nation as president? Do we want a new President and a new Secretary of Homeland Security simultaneously? I’ll leave you to ponder those questions.

Only in its fourth episode at the time of writing this article, Designated Survivor on ABC addresses the challenges to the continuity of government and as the title suggests the role of the designated survivor. Tom Kirkman is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the titular designated survivor, who is played by Kiefer Sutherland. Secretary Kirkman is swiftly sworn into office after a devastating attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union address. Before the attack the President basically asks Kirkman to resign from his position and take on a new and seemingly unimportant ambassadorship, a transition that was not made final before the State of the Union.  After the president and the rest of the line of succession is killed in the attack, Kirkman faces many challenges in his new role as president. He has difficulty commanding respect from his subordinates, uniting the country, and responding to the attack on the nation. 

It is highly unlikely that the designated survivor will ever be utilized, or that our nation would suffer such a devastating catastrophe that we would revert to our thirteenth-string president. We need to keep everyone in the Presidential succession prepared and ready for the unimaginable. That means picking the right people to fill these positions. Being the designated survivor is a heavy responsibility. We are demanding that a single individual lead our country, when they never asked for that job. In the case of the TV show, it demands that someone wholly unprepared to take over the role must do so, all while the entire government collapses around him. Though it is unlikely, these eventualities should be and likely have all been prepared for, to ensure, as the law states, the continuity of government.