Lessons from the One Term Presidents

Cue Obama comment.

“I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president,” President Barack Obama told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer during an interview that the network is airing in pieces on World News and Good Morning America.

I just kind of have to hate the query that prompted this answer.  This is the only politick answer Obama could provide; to say otherwise would be to suggest you’re a political creature.  It is rote, but he stayed on the script that he has to stay on with that one — and you know, no need for the self-parody that came with the Teleprompter set in that sixth grade classroom, for this is a more general self-parody of generic presidential answers.

He is a president, you have to understand, who only now and only this week has lost me to an extent.  I say that with the suggestion that he only marginally “had me” to begin with — and a comment that I always hold to this sneaking suspicion that in the end, an administration’s influence on one’s life lies merely at the margins.  I expect better than this last week or two, a sour note has chimed in to what’s otherwise been a tolerable decent imperfect middling good mixture.  He appears to guilty of responding too much to his own press, and by that I mean Andrew Sullivan.  Well, it’s a long term or two; I guess I expect troughs and periods where things just kind of go off course.

But, to Obama, on his one term comment, I’d have to say: — hokay, Wise Guy.  I recently compiled this Rating of the Presidents.  It corrals the disparate contradictory and competing impulses, and through the four categories warrants asterisks aplenty of acknowledgements of what’s wrong with this picture, and which would only serve to muddle.  It is also — how do I say — idosyncratic.  BUT… Mr. “I’ll take a Good One Term over a mediocre two termer”… who do you want to follow in the footsteps of and how do you intend on following his footsteps?

 John Quincy Adams.  Yes, I admit, this is a lifetime achievement slot.  Remove his stellar post presidential congressional career needling the Slave Power, remove his pre-presidential “Monroe Doctrine”, and he’d fall to — probably the next category.  How can Obama be a one termer of the stature of John Quincy Adams?  I suppose he can return to the Senate, and put up a legacy there.  Also, Adams made a decent contribution to American Arts and Letters, and so flag the “Dreams of My Father” book good and well.

Chester Arthur.  Okay, this one appears to be a joke.  No, no I’m quite serious.  Chester Arthur matched up against unusual circumstances.  Garfield was killed by a man wanting to thwart reform to the civil service spoils system — that cancer on our political system that was making our election system a joke.  Arthur, chastined by the situation, and also aware that he would be dead in a few years, instituted the necessary reforms.  And he went after the corruption of his former backers.  History then very quickly forgot he existed.  Lesson for Obama?  I don’t know.  Give us a good, concrete result that makes the democratic process a lot cleaner.

Gerald Ford.  Actually, he’s Chester Arthur’s doppelganger — fell into office through a sideways means.  In his case, he was forced to a level of few real ambitions for the presidency.  But he provides one particular area for Obama, somewhere in the vision of the Vietnam War:  let some disasterous policies of previous administrations expire.

John F Kennedy.  Probably better to leave him out of this.  But, if I must suggest to Obama something out of Kennedy: even if you fail to advance in the legislative buzzsaws, leave behind the rhetorical framework with which your successors can work to leave a lasting legacy.

In the next round of ten, things get a bit odder.  I stuck up the name John Tyler — who could easily be slotted in the bottom ten, and generally is in the Historians’ listings.  I’m a little mischievous here, but you have to understand the circumstances of what Tyler dealt with, and the one historical legacy he absolutely had to leave behind — he was President, with all the responsibilities and privileges that position holds — and nothing less than that, even as your Henry Clays in the Senate wanted to take that away from him.  If you can impart a lesson for Obama from such a thing as what John Tyler endured, it is the mere act of survival and keeping your head about you, fighting against fierce partisan headwinds.

James K Polk is the usual suspect the Historians’ lists stick up there as “Top One Termer”.  You can leave them to explain him — round up a small list of things you wish to do, and then doggedly get them done.  There’s a bit more, having to do with the virtues of knowing future political careers reside outside the ebb and flow of this presidential administration — the virtues of a prolonged Lame Duckdom — but I suspect that such a thing has passed away and can’t really work in this day and age.

It’s probably not worth going down any further.  We have in this second category that mostly just didn’t disgrace themselves — Zachary Taylor offers a Kennedy-lite problem in that you can imagine he might have played the future a bit better, so with Taylor he might have amoelirated Slavery and had a firmer path toward its destruction inherent in the Compromises to come — smothering rabid pro-slavery Southern sentiment by mere fact of being himself a Southerner (positioned as moderate).  But he offers nothing besides that one.  Carter offers a clear suggestion of things not to do — don’t make a speech outlining the problems the nation faces with an offering of a plan to combat the problem, and then in rather incoherently fire your entire cabinet.   

You also don’t want to be Harding and have your Interior Department sell off public lands, or Coolidge and swerve the nation into illusionary economic bubbles… but that last disaster (and he was the truest disaster of the three twenties presidents) served a good five years — so I guess he counts as a two termer.

Actually, I want to break up Hayes and Harrison, but I don’t know who in the third category to slide down and which one of these two most warrants a slide up.  A lesson from the Gilded Age one term presidents: keep your presidential preogatives.  He might have screwed the pooch on that one already by not keeping a firmer guiding on Health Care.

Now to the mediocre two termers…

Leave a Reply