THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Don’t Think About Reelection

Why Obama Should Consider Himself a One-Term President

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?

Enough BSing.

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.

COPYRIGHT 2008 TED RALL

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17 Responses to “THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Don’t Think About Reelection”

  1. Grouchy Says:

    My god, I wish the Dems would spend the next two years ramming through progressive legislation, without worrying about re-election. This is a rare moment in history.

    If they’d bully in single payer health care, it’d be hard for the right to take it back. The Repugs would have to attempt to run it into the ground–like they’re trying to do with S.S.

    But I’m not holding my breath. The Dems only pander to progressives. Much as the Repugs only pander to the evangelicals.

  2. Aggie Dude Says:

    I’m not holding my breath either, Ted, our system is so screwed from top to bottom that it will consume Obama and then lurch back to the right with a massive backlash.

    The nightmare will not end, and our only alternatives are worse.

  3. devil Says:

    “…it’s going to take some serious nads to ignore the special interests.”

    he must be a eunuch then, cuz he ain’t gonna ignore shit. the special interests OWN him, same way they own every other washington politician. he’s a complete and total phony, just like the rest of them, taking his money and marching orders from the exact same creeps as mccain. ted, get ready to start reaming him in your cartoons, because he’s going to deserve it.

    oh, and LOL@you for not approving my comment about the “cartoonist conspiracy!” now i KNOW i’m right…

  4. Angelo Says:

    everything will go to hell in the next four years. Why we thought it was a good idea to have a democrat and the first non-white president in charge when it happens is so suicidal, it is almost suspicious.

    “It’ll be great, we can get rid of democrats for another 10 years, and be rid of the idea of a non-white president forever.”

  5. Anonymous Says:

    We get to find out something big about our society on Nov. 4. I don’t think it is possible to underestimate how big an issue race is in this election. I don’t think economic problems is enough to trump this kind of issue for those who, consciously or unconsciously, are still basically racist. I talked with someone from the Middle East today. They said their opinion of America would change if he is elected.

    If he does win, I agree with Ted and Grouchy. He has two years to make his mark and that should be his goal. He has a chance of getting something done given the level of mess and the fact that he should have a majority in both houses. What we will find out is how ready the public is for any substantive change. I think the pols will move if they have to, especially those who will be up for re-election.

    If things are so bad that the public will give Congress back to the Republicans, then whether or not Obama wins will not make much difference and I can’t see why they would elect Obama in the first place.

    I wonder whether it would be worse for the Democrats in Congress to have McCain elected. The Republicans would be able to blame his failures on them.

    I’m neither optimistic, pessimistic or feeling above it all about all this. I do think it is an exceptional time. As for Obama on Day 1, he better have a plan and hit the deck running. Didn’t Bush kind of wander around aimlessly until 9/11 and it was then that Cheney took charge? Cheney had a game plan all worked out. McCain doesn’t have one and he doesn’t take advice all that easily. I have no idea of what Obama really thinks he can accomplish.

  6. Seth Warren Says:

    I have resigned myself to the fact that no matter the results come the morning of November 5th, I will be disappointed. If Obama wins, I want him to start acting like a liberal. If McCain wins, I want him to do nothing for his four years (and for Christ’s sake, stay alive!).

  7. peejay3 Says:

    Ted Rall, ahead of events again.

    Congrats on another great article. My thoughts exactly: A good first term, don’t even think about campaigning for the second and, wa-la, four more years.

    And, what DID devil say about the ‘cartoonist conspiracy’?

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Ted,
    What is your justification/reasoning for voting for Obama?

    I’m always surprised by people who talk a progressive game but then cast their vote for a very retrogressive candidate.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    I hope President Obama thinks over what you’ve said. He’s young enough, and fly enough, that he might just adopt it.

    One thing I’d like to add to your short list of Carter accomplishments that Reagan got credit for: the CAFE standards and other energy-conserving measures he passed so lowered the price of oil that the Soviet Union went bankrupt. (A point made by Thomas Friedman in his book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded and confirmed by some of the officials of the Soviet Union. (Yes, I am aware that the Saudis got tired of supporting oil prices all by themselves and increased production, but the big factor pushing them down was reduced consumption.)

  10. Ted Rall Says:

    “What is your justification/reasoning for voting for Obama?

    I’m always surprised by people who talk a progressive game but then cast their vote for a very retrogressive candidate.”

    Fair question. I admit, I don’t feel good about it. Perhaps if Ralph Nader were running a more aggressive campaign this time around, and perhaps if he wasn’t so damned old now, I’d be casting my third presidential vote for him.

    In New York state, where I live, the whole thing is inconsequential. Obama will carry the state regardless of how I vote.

    There are certainly many good reasons not to vote for Obama, not the least of which is that I disagree with him about most of the big issues, like the wars (which he has voted for repeatedly and pledges to continue and escalate). He doesn’t talk about torture or Gitmo, which leads me to believe he won’t change current policy very quickly, if at all. And he has disturbing obsessions with bipartisanship. Republican politicians who voted with Bush belong in prison, not across the negotiating table.

    In the final analysis, I’m voting for Obama because of what it will tell American blacks–that they’re part of the country too, and that white guys like me (51% of us at the last poll) trust them–and for what it will tell the world–that we trust a guy named Hussein, that we’re not all a bunch of racist xenophobic shits.

    I hope he proves me wrong on the centrist stuff. But he probably won’t.

  11. Grouchy Says:

    I recently saw a clip if Chomsky, and he explained the progressive’s three choices when voting for president:

    1. Don’t vote. Protest the whole system.

    2. Vote for the lesser of the two evils (most of the time a Democrat). He adds that there’s nothing dishonorable about making such a pragmatic choice, and in the long run even small policy changes can make big difference.

    3. Vote 3rd party, with the hope of building it up in the future.

    I believe all three choices are valid, if made by an informed voter–it’s important to understand what your choice means if you live in a swing state.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    I should point out, Johnston technically only had the one term. The initial term was still Kennedy’s His second term would have come 1968-72, had he decided to stand that is.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    *In the final analysis, I’m voting for Obama because of what it will tell American blacks–that they’re part of the country too, and that white guys like me (51% of us at the last poll) trust them–and for what it will tell the world–that we trust a guy named Hussein, that we’re not all a bunch of racist xenophobic shits.*

    Oh, wow. That’s just crazy. Maybe you should do some self-reflection and try to imagine how you got such a bug in your head.

    But that’s all very indirect anyway. Do this instead. The next time you see a black person on the street, go up to him, pat him on the head and say, “I’m not a racist. I trust you.” And then remember that this is absurd for two very good reasons:

    1. It is an insult to patronize someone like that. And,

    2. A random black person is 8-9x more likely to mug you than a white person. So…statistically…maybe you shouldn’t be trusting him.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for answering my question. I respect your opinions and insights.

  15. Pieter Says:

    Obama needs to start moving on things as soon as he’s elected. We need to see national health care legislation very fast, or it’s not going to happen. Earlier this year, Krugman pointed out that Clinton waited until Sept 93 to present his first major policy speech on the issue, and that meant he’d lost the initiative and was more easily stopped.

    Obama should have an ambitious plan as soon as he arrives: close Guantanamo Bay, bring in national health care, ban torture, and then get to work eliminating nuclear weapons.

  16. Grouchy Says:

    A random black person is 8-9x more likely to mug you than a white person. So…statistically…maybe you shouldn’t be trusting him.

    Where did you get this statistic?

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Note about universal health care:

    This would kill a lot of birds with one stone. The need for Medicare and many state and local–usually county-level–programs would end. Don’t forget about medical services for veterans. That’s another big pot of cash plus facilities. It’s really the funding mechanism we are talking about. Right now private insurers and public programs are spending a ton of money and medical resources denying coverage.

    I think there are a lot of hidden savings in this kind of move. We are paying 2x what Denmark pays and we are not healthier. What you see is the effect of an artificial monopoly: We get less for more. It drives a lot of medical folk crazy. They are not all greedy crooks.

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