If John Kerry takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2005, he will have shown himself to be, as advertised, a "great closer." Can he prove to be an equally good "opener"?
Drama crackles whenever a president takes power from the man he defeated. Kerry's win would mark only the third time in U.S. history that a new president was elected in wartime. And Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon both followed incumbents who chose not to run again.
By all accounts, Kerry has thought hard about his first weeks in office. Late last year he gave a series of speeches setting out some of the priorities for his first 100 days. Even so, the "First 100 Days" conceit can singe a new president. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office with huge majorities in Congress, began with a slew of major reforms. Such legislative success is rare. Rookie errors are far more common.
I lived through the Clinton transition as a policy and communications aide. It was a messy time and, in retrospect, an opportunity lost. For Kerry, a successful launch will require him to temper expectations -- from the public, the press and his party -- while acting boldly.
In ways, Kerry is not to be envied. He will be served a platter of unpalatable choices. Instantly, Kerry will turn from Iraq critic to Iraq commander in chief, a tricky transition. He will be forced to find $70 billion to pay for continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and will be confronted with tough choices on the eve of Iraqi elections. (Even before taking office, Kerry may be asked by a lame duck President Bush to bless an assault on insurgents in Fallujah.) Crises over nuclear arms programs in Iran and North Korea could follow. At home, a Republican opposition will range from grumpy to embittered, certain to resist the tax policies central to the new president's domestic agenda. As Kerry frankly acknowledged in the debates, the alarming budget deficit may compel him to scale back many campaign goals.
Politically, all this bad news isn't all bad. After Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he often recalled the baseball player-manager Frankie Frisch. After a rookie he sent into center field promptly committed two errors, Frisch strode out to play himself and let the next ball get by. He supposedly sputtered, "That kid's got center field so messed up, nobody can play it!" Like Reagan, Kerry can remind citizens of the conditions he inherited. Though at some point Kerry will own the problems, this strategy can work for quite a while.
Bush, if he loses, will have left another unintended legacy: a unified Democratic Party -- something about as common as a Red Sox victory parade. In 1993, Democratic lawmakers felt little fealty to Clinton. I recall sitting in the Cabinet room in the first private meeting between the new president and House Speaker Tom Foley (a Democrat), who condescendingly told the new chief to slow his political reform agenda. If not, the Speaker hinted, something unfortunate might happen to Clinton's tax proposals. By contrast, ever since Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, the Democrats have been acting surprisingly like an actual political party. For a while, it will lend Kerry support among Democrats for change.
What will President Kerry's first 100 days bring?
The bully pulpit. Kerry will seek a new tone with his inaugural address, delivered on the very steps where he led protests 34 years earlier. He will lack the luxury of delivering what speechwriters call a "tone poem," written for the ages or to be carved on the wall at the Kerry Library. Instead, he must set a course for achieving goals under adverse circumstances.
The stroke of the pen. A new president has tools a senator can only dream of, such as executive orders. In a time of divided government, chief executives increasingly make policy this way. Kerry, a fervent reformer in the Senate, has promised to tighten rules on lobbying by former government officials, a change that would have to be in place during the transition so cabinet officers could sign on. Expect action to strengthen port security, boost funds for stem cell research, allow pharmaceuticals to be imported from Canada, and undo some of Bush's most visible environmental rulings (such as the one allowing off-road vehicles in national parks).
These solo moves convey a message as surely as a 30-second campaign ad. Clinton vowed to "focus like a laser beam on the economy," yet his first executive actions dealt with international family planning and abortion rights. Kerry must craft actions that focus, like his campaign, on health care and the economy.
Appointments. Kerry may want to elevate Homeland Security to a "top tier" department. But the most dramatic appointment, given the state of Chief Justice William Rehnquist's health, may be to the Supreme Court, possibly in the first weeks of Kerry's term. The new administration will certainly not let the conservative Federalist Society vet its judicial nominations. But any nominee must win approval from a sharply split Senate.
Budgets and spending. In his first days, Kerry will try to show that the era of big deficits is over. In February, he will introduce a new budget. Even sooner, he may want to work with Republicans to craft budget rules putting the government back on a "pay as you go" basis. Clinton's stand-alone health care reform flopped; Kerry should fold his into an overall budget framework.
National security. Foreign policy is, as George W. Bush would say, "hard work." Kerry has promised to seek allies' help in Iraq; getting their help is another matter. The new president should be just as nervous putting his political fate in the hands of French President Jacques Chirac as in the hands of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged, "I will go to Korea." During the transition, he went -- essentially a khaki photo op. But he cut a deal and ended the war in six months. Kerry, whose Iraq policy might not differ radically from Bush's at this stage, must find a way to display a new approach and honesty.
A real uniter. Kerry needs to find Republicans with whom he can work, and fast. He could probably win bipartisan support for more money for homeland security. And he could appoint a Republican to a senior cabinet post higher than, say, transportation secretary. After the 1995 government shutdown, the Clinton impeachment and Bush's strategy of playing to his base, maybe -- just maybe -- legislative gladiators are exhausted.
None of this adds up to a Rooseveltian 100 days. But Kerry has a real chance to put his stamp on the presidency and give the country the "fresh start" promised by his campaign posters. Memorable presidents are those who boldly break with their predecessors. And as the adage goes, for presidents as for prom dates, "You only have one chance to make a first impression."