Four more years?
Tuesday, November 24, 2009; 12:06 PM
Is it conceivable that Barack Obama won't run for reelection?
First-term presidents routinely deflect that question and then try to win another four years. The last one to walk away from the job was Lyndon Johnson in 1968, and he was essentially driven out of the race by Gene McCarthy. Before that, it was Harry Truman in 1952, but he had served almost two terms after FDR's death.
My general assumption is that if you have the psychological makeup to run for president -- to put yourself and your family through that grueling marathon -- then you don't voluntarily relinquish power. You might get tossed out by the voters -- like Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush the elder in 1992 -- but you fight to hang onto the office.
Obama made some intriguing comments the other day that didn't get much pickup. That got me thinking whether, if his first term was a flop, he might just walk away. You never got a sense that Obama had to be president -- for most of his life, the notion that an African-American could live in the White House was far-fetched. As a law professor and author, he seemed comfortable before getting into Illinois politics. But will he step away from the pinnacle of power?
On the Asia trip last week, my CNN colleague Ed Henry raised the 2012 issue by asking Obama whether he could envision a scenario where he wouldn't run for reelection.
"Here's how I think about it,' the president said. "I said to myself very early on, even when I started running for office, that I -- I don't want to be making decisions based on getting reelected, because I think the challenges that America faces right now are so significant. Obviously, if I make those decisions and I think that I'm moving the country on the right direction economically, in terms of our security interests, our foreign policy, I'd like to think that those policies are continued because they're not going to bear fruit just in four years. . . .
"But, you know, if -- if I feel like I've made the very best decisions for the American people and three years from now I look at it and, you know, my poll numbers are in the tank and, you know, because we've gone through these wrenching changes, you know, politically, I'm in a tough spot, I'll -- I'll feel all right about myself. I -- I'd feel a lot worse if at a time of such urgency for the American people, I was spending a lot of time thinking how can I position myself to ensure reelection, because if I was -- if I was doing that right now, I wouldn't have taken on health care. I -- I wouldn't be taking on things that are unpopular. I wouldn't be closing Guantanamo. . . . And, you know, history will -- will -- will bear out my theories or not."
Let's deconstruct, shall we? On one level, this is a very political answer. I'm doing the tough things, Obama is saying, not simply trying to hang onto my job. And, he says, if that costs me a second term, so be it. I'll know I have done the right thing. It makes the president look high-minded and principled.
But is there also an element of doubt in there: if "my poll numbers are in the tank"? Is Obama frustrated at his struggles on everything from health care to Afghanistan, and approval ratings that, according to Gallup, have now dipped below 50 percent? Is he acknowledging that this whole audacity of hope thing may not work out? That his "theories" may have collided with reality?
I may be reading too much into it. Ninety-nine percent chance he runs again. But an interesting window into the president's psyche.
Part of Obama's problem is that he's taking heat from the left, with the likes of David Obey pushing a war surtax.
"As President Obama nears a decision on a troop increase for the war in Afghanistan," the NYT reports, "he is facing increasingly vocal criticism from senior Congressional Democrats over the war's cost, the size of the United States troop commitment and the reliability of America's allies. . . .