As a student of history and the American presidency, here's the best advice I can give to our new leader: Starting on Inauguration Day, consider yourself a one-term president.
This isn't exactly an original idea. When John McCain launched his own run for the Republican nomination, he originally planned to center his entire campaign around a promise not to seek a second term. "Less than a day before he was set to speak in New Hampshire on April 25," The Atlantic magazine reported, "McCain ordered his aides to excise...the pledge." But McCain was on to something.
I realize that telling anyone you're a one-termer would be dumb. Why tie your own hands by declaring yourself a lame duck on Day One? So don't. I'm suggesting that you privately adopt a state of mind: Don't worry about 2012.
I've never understood why presidents worry about getting reelected. The "second-term curse" - the tendency of lame-duck presidencies to flounder in scandal, blowback and impotence - has prevented every modern president from accomplishing anything worth bragging about during years five through eight.
Harry Truman squandered his credibility by playing footsie with McCarthyism and doubling down on a disastrous stalemate on the Korean peninsula. Johnson screwed up in Vietnam and on the burning streets of American cities. Nixon had Watergate; Eisenhower and Reagan succumbed to virtual senility and scandal (the U-2 spy plane affair and Iran-Contra, respectively). Of course, Clinton had Monica.
The exception, of course, was George W. Bush. His quest for a second term was understandable. "Bush knows that he did not carry the popular vote in 2000," Gus Tyler wrote in The Forward in 2003. "He ran a half-million votes behind Democrat Al Gore. He knows that he really did not carry Florida to give him his thin edge in the Electoral College." Dubya wanted to win in 2004 because he lost in 2000.
Technically, 2005-to-2008 was Bush's first term. Nevertheless, the second-term curse struck again. Bush had an ambitious agenda, but it was thwarted by both circumstance and the consequences of policies he pursued during his first four years. Privatizing Social Security, tort reform, stricter test standards for high school graduation - all abandoned and forgotten in the fires of Iraq and the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina.
Bush's approval rating is now 23 percent, the lowest in the history of the Gallup Poll. He wasn't even invited to the Republican National Convention. He seems destined to be added to the short list of our worst leaders.
So forget that second term. They never do anyone any good.
George Clinton said, "Free your mind and your ass will follow." Give up the hope you can't believe in and embrace the reality you have already achieved. So, the president-elect faces challenges: Iraq and Afghanistan and torture and our international standing and - obviously! -- the economy.
Be careful. The second you move into 1600 Penn, you will be surrounded by people, many of them your close friends, who will want nothing more than to keep the cool jobs you give them for as long as possible, i.e. eight years. Beware the "permanent campaign" - the drive to make every decision based on how they will affect you and your party's chances for reelection. "[Pollster] Dick Morris even asked voters where Bill Clinton should go on vacation," remembered Joe Klein in Time.
"[The permanent campaign] has been a terrible thing," Klein continued. "Presidents need to be thinking past the horizon, as Jimmy Carter belatedly proved. Some of his best decisions - a strict monetary policy to combat inflation, a vigorous arms buildup against the Soviet threat - bore fruit years after he left office and were credited to his successor, Ronald Reagan."
Radical problems require radical solutions. Guess what? We have radical problems. It's going to take some serious nads to ignore the special interests. Big insurance companies like the current healthcare "system" just the way it is. Defense contractors are psyched about our serial preemptive wars against anyone and everyone (except those who actually attack us). And the banks aren't going to stop taking people's homes unless you take over the banks. It isn't going to be easy.
But running the country as if you had nothing to lose - running your first term as if it you knew it will be your last - will make it a little easier. For all you know, it might make a second term more likely.
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