Will our next president get a moment of maximum political power and apply it to the benefit of the nation and world? Recent history is worth examining.
Looking back at the presidential terms of Obama, Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr., each squandered a moment of great potential. I remember when George H.W. Bush addressed Congress after the successful conclusion of the first Gulf War. It might have been the most heroic moment in America since our landing on the moon. Before the war, the country had been uncertain and afraid; the administration had floated stories that body bags would be in short supply given the expected mass casualties of our troops, and with memories of Vietnam less than a generation old, America was expecting the worst.
Bush, who just two years before had been declared “a wimp” on the cover of Newsweek and who had become president not because of his ideas but his superior campaign, stood before Congress as the leader not just of the United States, but of the free world. Bush, with a 90 percent approval, could have channeled the country’s euphoria into historic domestic action. Imagine if he had told his united nation, for example, “our country has shown it is willing to unite and sacrifice abroad for its ideals; now we will call on that spirit and put it to work at home with (insert ambitious agenda here).” Instead, he asked his country for nothing, and two years later he was a one-term president (his son also squandered a rare moment of domestic and international political capital in the wake of 9/11 with his disaster in Iraq).
Of course, one could argue Bush Sr. never had the “vision thing”, and so the failure to seize his moment was inevitable. But the same could not be said of Clinton or Obama. Both men assumed the presidency with a mandate of “change” and both squandered it. Clinton probably misread the extent of his agenda, (his winning percentage was less than 50) and he seemed scattered in his first year, lurching from gays in the military, to an economic program, to health care, a crime bill and NAFTA. Obama’s failure to reach his potential is more complex; unlike Clinton who came to office with a clear agenda, “Putting People First”, Obama rode to office on higher, but vague hopes. But despite tremendous national goodwill and a severe economic crisis, he governed initially, as he has throughout his term, with a curious lack of urgency.
Imagine if Obama had set a different tone before he even took the oath of office? What if he had cancelled all the corporate-funded inaugural festivities, and said, “This is not a time for celebration. Our country is on its back and too many Americans are hurting. We don’t need a party; we need to get to work. Every ounce of energy in my Administration will be dedicated to restoring our financial system and lowering unemployment. There is no other agenda.” Indeed, Obama did bolster the nation’s finances and win passage of a stabilizing stimulus, but too quickly moved on to health care, leaving the impression the economy had been cured, instead of just moving out of intensive care. When the economy sputtered again, his health care initiative, on which he exhausted all his political capital, appeared out-of-sync. Both Clinton and Obama have significant achievements to their credit, but neither fully realized the potential of their presidencies.
What about our next president? If history is any guide, they will get their chance at greatness, too. Will they also miss it?