After a nerve-rattling week in which the U.S. financial system was shaken to
the core, here's a simple question: Why on Earth would anyone want to be
president right now?
Even in the best of times, it's a grueling job. But the problems of 2008
seem unusually intractable, and despite the fine talk one sometimes hears about
reconciliation, the electorate will be divided no matter who wins in November.
Even Bush's snarkiest critics would have had trouble predicting all the rough
weather of the second term, from Hurricane Katrina to the smoldering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the bursting of the
housing bubble, the financial meltdown and the Recession That Dare Not Speak
Its Name. Would any sane person want to inherit this?
Of course, even to pose that question assumes that candidates for the
nation's highest office are normal reasoning creatures. Most of us would pause
before spending millions of dollars to travel thousands of miles to eat
hundreds of chicken dinners with people who snipe at our clothes, our hair cuts
and our every public utterance. Losing is no fun, but is winning even worse?
"Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm," Lyndon B.
Johnson once said. "There's nothing to do but to stand there and take
So what does it mean to inherit the presidency in an hour of crisis?
Historically, it has usually meant a push to reverse the last fellow's
policies. That holds true even in relatively tranquil times. In 2001, for
instance, the incoming Bush team, which scorned its predecessors as
ineffectual, weak and morally compromised, made a mantra of the term
"ABC" ("Anything But Clinton"). Their contempt was so
thorough that a satirical headline in a story about the inauguration in the
Onion read, "Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is
Finally Over.' "
Ironically, the outgoing Bush team may be in for similar treatment from the
next crowd. With about 80 percent of the electorate saying that the country is
on the wrong track, it doesn't take a brilliant tactician to suggest that a new
direction would work well for either Barack Obama or John McCain.
("ABB" isn't terribly catchy; perhaps "ABBA," for
"Anything But Bush Administration," might work better in the year of
"Mamma Mia"?) As even McCain's campaign makes clear, anti-Bushism is
likely to be the refrain of the early months of 2009, no matter who is elected.
But how well does rejecting the policies of one's predecessor work? Here's
the historian's answer: pretty well. A glance at other difficult presidential
transitions shows that in nearly every case -- though not quite all of them --
the presidency that came after a troubled one succeeded, in both senses of the
word. And it usually did so by taking a brisk 180-degree turn.
The tradition of trampling on the last guy's policies is nearly as old as
the presidency itself. It was hard for John Adams to improve upon George
Washington, but it was easy for Thomas Jefferson's crowd to blast Adams. Abraham Lincoln started off under the worst
conditions imaginable, but his majestic first inaugural address sent a clear
message that James Buchanan's prevarications were a thing of the past. Grover
Cleveland, the only president in history to succeed two different men, was able
to declare a new beginning not once, but twice.
no presidency began under darker clouds than Franklin D. Roosevelt's. The U.S. financial
system was in vastly worse shape than it is even today, totalitarianism was
looming abroad, and the New York Stock Exchange had actually shut down. But Roosevelt knew that Herbert Hoover had given him, in
FDR's own words, "an easy act to follow." On that dark inaugural day
in 1933, the new president was only five sentences into his maiden speech when
the sonorous attack on "fear itself" came; nothing was the same after
that. Roosevelt launched a sustained attack on Hoover's laissez-faire policies; there's a
reason he called the New Deal new.
Twenty years later, Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to inflict something of a
GOP comeuppance on the Democrats at another anxious turning point in U.S. history.
The beleaguered Truman administration was reeling from the Korean War, the
Alger Hiss spy scandal, a housing crisis and the public's exhaustion with
Democratic dominance. In 1952, Eisenhower became unbeatable simply by rising
above these problems and promising to "go to Korea."
In office, Ike seemed to rescue the presidency. The moderate course he
promised built confidence among Democrats as well as Republicans, and his
personal probity let citizens hope for a new era free of influence-peddling and
partisan attacks. Within two years of his inauguration, many of Harry S.
Truman's worst problems had disappeared: The Korean situation stabilized,
McCarthyism died an unmourned death, and Americans settled in for a long summer
of prosperity in the middle of the 20th century.
In 1981, with the country in another deep funk after four years of
stagflation, international setbacks and Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan borrowed
from the example of his hero, FDR. Reagan was a natural anti-Carter -- a fact
driven home on Inauguration Day, when Iran
released the U.S.
hostages it had been holding since Nov. 4, 1979.
Reagan did an about-face, and the public loved it. He could hardly take a
false step during his early months, as seen in both his natural grace (most
famously in his gallantry after surviving an assassination attempt) and his
ability to bring some steel to the Oval Office (consider his confrontation with
the air traffic controllers, a showdown that further bolstered his reputation as
the anti-Carter). At the same time, he showed some willingness to reach across
the aisle and made steady progress toward his ambitious goals of reducing the
federal budget, lowering taxes and raising the defense budget. As the historian
Sean Wilentz notes, "Not since President James K. Polk came to office in
1845 had any president succeeded in winning so much of his announced agenda so
But the formula of reversing a predecessor's policy doesn't always work so
neatly. Consider Richard M. Nixon, who took over in 1969 from Lyndon Johnson,
the miserable war president sunk by Vietnam. Nixon's presidency got off
to a much better start than most of us remember. In his recent book,
"Nixonland," historian Rick Perlstein reveals the surprisingly
deferential treatment the new commander in chief received from the mainstream
media (including The Washington Post and the New York Times), which
persistently used such words as "cool," "confident" and
"efficient" to describe him. To some extent, this was the natural
result of national exhaustion with Johnson's bloated ego and bankrupt policies,
which Nixon seemed to be reversing.
Vietnam was a harder
problem to solve than Iraq,
and in the early days, Nixon made real headway. Surprisingly, he showed a
peacenik side, installing Woodrow Wilson's desk in his Oval Office, citing his
mother's Quakerism in speech after speech and appearing to tamp down U.S. involvement in Southeast
Asia -- a far cry from LBJ. His first budget proposed to reduce
defense spending by $1.1 billion, and soon the New York Times could announce
that "public pressure over the war has almost disappeared." When the
first Americans landed on the moon in July 1969, Nixon was there to reap the
credit. For a while, it seemed as if the sky was literally the limit to his
But of course, the story didn't end there. We now know that Nixon's reversal
was incomplete and that he was giving in to his uglier instincts from the
beginning. His apparent disengagement from Indochina was fatally undercut by
his secret bombing of Cambodia:
Starting in 1969, according to historian Larry Berman, more than 3,875 sorties
were launched with no notification to Congress. From that evasion came a
neverending stream of others, as well as a secret administration apparatus
designed to conceal as many of them as possible. "We cannot escape
once said. Nixon proved the point by failing to separate himself from his
predecessor as cleanly as he thought he had.
History cannot tell us who the 44th president will be. But history does
suggest that a new commander in chief who charts a sharply different course
from Bush will find an awfully receptive audience, at least in the early going.
The next president will face daunting odds, trying to resolve two thorny
conflicts, dismantle al-Qaeda, halt nuclear proliferation, contain a resurgent Russia, fight
global warming and wring prosperity out of a battered economy.
But the best lesson history can teach is that success is always temporary.
Bush's successor should of course steer away from the last administration --
that is a given. But he should also resist the too-easy temptation of letting
the last administration shape the next one, if only by showing it what not to
do. Instead, the next president should combine FDR's "bold, persistent
experimentation" with Eisenhower's prudent handling of a nasty Asian war
and Reagan's intoxicating optimism. Inauguration Day is still months away, but
history suggests that today's storm clouds can part nearly as quickly as they
formed -- given the right combination of luck, vision and endless adaptation.