Barring some unforeseen cataclysmic event, Barack Obama will be elected president Tuesday. Please allow me to be the first to congratulate you, President-Elect Obama, on an historic victory following an extraordinarily disciplined campaign. Are you sure you're really a Democrat?
As a student of history and the American presidency and a guy who plans to vote for you despite serious doubts, here's the best advice I can give you: 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. Voters want a president who isn't constantly triangulating, studying polls, and sucking up to contributors.
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. Back in 2007, you laid out three guiding principles to your campaign: "Run the campaign with respect; build it from the bottom up; and finally, no drama." It worked. Now it's time to transmit a new guiding principle to your cabinet officers: "We don't care about 2012."
With one exception, 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, President-Elect Obama: It's true. You face challenges: Iraq and Afghanistan (which you are wrong wrong wrong about) and torture and our international standing and--obviously!--the economy. But think of what you've got going for you. You are young and sharp-minded and vigorous. The electorate is desperately worried, and thus more willing to embrace big changes. Your party will enjoy a commanding majority in Congress--I'm guessing 58 seats in the Senate and 268 (to 167) in the House, the biggest since Watergate. I'm pretty sure you're going to pick a team of top officials that will make Americans wonder how they ever tolerated intellectual midgets like Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice--the Best and the Brightest for the new millennium. The rest of the world already loves you, and you haven't even begun.
But 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. Your kids-only healthcare mandate concept would be a Band-Aid where major surgery is required. Iraq and Afghanistan don't need another division of Marines here, another detachment of Special Forces there. Nothing short of immediate pullout will satisfy the world, our ruined national budget or, for that matter, the Iraqis and Afghans. Your 90-day proposed moratorium on foreclosure evictions is nice as far as it goes--well, 90 days--but it's going to take years of direct government assistance to millions of Americans to save the country from economic disintegration.
Even with a bully pulpit and a Democratic Congress, 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.