Looking for a different sort of president
Always picking from the Ivy League shelf makes for leadership monotony
The second terms of the most recent three presidents have not been successful. Bill Clinton was impeached after his infamous lie to Americans, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” George W. Bush was blamed for the postwar violence in Iraq. Barack Obama’s scandals — with his accompanying “limited hangout” denials — are ruining his second term: the growing Internal Revenue Service messes, the Associated Press monitoring, the National Security Agency embarrassments, the Benghazi killings, the Syria bluster and backing down, and, of course, the Obamacare fiasco and the misleading statements about it.
What are other common denominators of this collective tenure of our recent presidents?
After popular first terms and re-election, they seemed to have lost public confidence and the ability to continue an agenda. Do two terms wear out a president? Maybe the hubris of getting re-elected convinces our commanders in chief that they are mostly beyond reproach. Overreach ensues. Then the goddess Nemesis descends in destructive fashion to remind them that they are mere mortals.
In addition, the more talented Cabinet and staff appointees often bail out near the end of the first term. At best, they burn out from continuous 16-hour workdays. At worst, they flee to leverage their formerly highprofile jobs through revolving-door influence-peddling, finding new work in the media, lobbying, consulting and Wall Street.
Boredom, both on the part of the president and the public, takes its toll. Bill Clinton was an effective speaker — at first. Near the end of his eight years, the public’s eyes rolled when he predictably misled, exaggerated or became petulant.
Mr. Bush was witty and sincere in repartee and impromptu speaking but often stumbled over the teleprompter. By the end of his eight years, his critics were publishing books of Bush malapropisms.
It is hard now to believe that Mr. Obama’s banal “hope and change” ever set a nation on fire. Certainly by 2013, we have come to snore when Mr. Obama for the umpteenth time laces his teleprompted rhetoric with “make no mistake about it” or “let me be perfectly clear.”
One-term presidencies — or a constitutional change to a single six-year presidential term — make better sense. A single presidential tenure might curtail an incumbent’s customary exaggerations about supposed past achievements and the phony promises about great things to come that are both apparently necessary for re-election. Much of wasteful federal spending and general bad policy derives from the re-election efforts of an incumbent desperate to appease or buy off the electorate.
In contrast, our culture’s heroes — in literature, film and the military — get things done precisely because they do not care all that much what happens to them as a result of their courageous decisions. In that regard, Calvin Coolidge’s decision to seek just one elected term is a far better model than Richard Nixon’s two.
Age may be also a factor. We are a youth-obsessed Camelot culture that puts far too much stock in good-looking candidates who act hip, jog or seem robust. Mr. Clinton was only 46 when he entered office, Mr. Obama just 47, and Jimmy Carter 52.
In a time of increased longevity, perhaps we should reconsider the advantages that six decades of experience might offer. Harry Truman (60), Dwight Eisenhower (62), and Ronald Reagan (69) seemed far steadier presidents. Their skepticism and perspective may have resulted from long careers of seeing almost everything — in addition to regular afternoon naps.
The youthful 40-something John F. Kennedy was impulsive in the same fashion as the reckless and similarly inexperienced Messrs. Carter, Clinton and Obama. The second time around, presidents in their mid-60s probably would not be so eager to paw comely interns or in naive fashion boast that they could “fundamentally transform” America. Can we also take a breather from the Ivy League?
When Mr. Obama finishes his term, we will have had 28 consecutive years of presidents with either an undergraduate or graduate degree from Harvard or Yale. We should have learned from chronic deficits, massive debt and Obamacare that the Ivy League’s best and brightest are not always either. Truman’s higher education came from the school of hard knocks. Ike graduated from West Point and helped win World War II.
Reagan slogged it out for years in the cutthroat worlds of Hollywood and television — after graduating from tiny Eureka College.
Finally, can our next president have done something for a while other than nonstop politicking? The press caricatured Ike’s garbled speeches and Reagan’s B-movie reruns. But at least they did not go uninterruptedly from one political office to the next until being elected president.
Youthful charisma, the Ivy League, career politicians and two presidential terms in theory may be fine, but next time around, can we take a needed break in 2016 from what have become our presidents-as-usual?