The President Whisperer

David Stokes

3/30/2012 12:01:00 AM - David Stokes

 

The dialogue sounds a bit like something out of a Cold War spy novel, especially the part where outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” It sounds eerily like an agent promising to pass along sensitive material to his handler. But wait—isn’t that the role Vladimir Putin has been playing for the past few years—the real “handler” of things, biding his time before he once again has the title to go with his real clout? Does anyone with a brain think that poor Medvedev has been doing anything other than a protracted exercise in presidential surrogacy?

Despite President Obama’s attempts at humor and spin, one question should be on the radar of those handling him—does the President of the United States need a teleprompter for his private conversations?  Throughout American history, chief executives have engaged in various degrees of backroom and back channel wheeling and dealing, from Nixon era “shuttle diplomacy,” to Franklin Roosevelt’s oft used slight of political hand, to JFK promising the Soviets that the missiles in Turkey would be gone shortly after a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. But these men had the presence of mind when microphones and cameras were present to guard their tongues and body language.

Of course, with predictable expedition and animation, news outlets have been flooded with spin and counter spin since that now famous gaffe.  The President’s agents provocateur say it is no big deal, while Mr. Obama’s critics have seized on it to craft an ominous forecast should he win reelection this November. So who’s right?

Well, if history is any indicator (and it usually is), the good money is on what President Obama’s critics are saying.

It has been pretty well established via overwhelming precedent that once a president is reelected he does indeed become more—shall we say—“flexible.”  In fact, it could be effectively argued that a second term reveals much more about the real person in office and what truly matters than does the first term.  And most of the time a second term is a study in hubris—excessive pride or arrogance.  Presidents who have won reelection to a new term invariably see it as a mandate, a national “go for it” liberating the leader from partisan (or in many cases, bipartisan) considerations. 

There are several well-known examples of post reelection impudence. Woodrow Wilson took us into the war he promised to keep us out of and then later attempted to change the planet itself with his grandiose vision of a new world after reelection in 1916.  Of course, soon the cheering stopped and he lived out his final days as a broken man.  Franklin D. Roosevelt moved swiftly to try to pack the court and stack the judicial deck after taking his second oath of office in 1937.  There was a political backlash to this classic overreach and some who had once thought FDR hung the moon became cynical about him in the late 1930s.

Lyndon Johnson mired us deep in Southeast Asia after his election in 1964 (sort of a second term), a campaign in which he told us that he wasn’t going to do that. He also promoted something he called the Great Society.  Grandiose stuff. 

Of course, Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, and Clinton had Monica, all playing out during their second terms, though the toxic seeds had been planted much earlier. There’s something about reelection that has historically unleashed headiness and carelessness in presidents. And if a man sees himself as the smartest guy in every room before getting a new shot at things, imagine how he must regard himself after he gets a giant thumbs up in the poll that matters most—the one in the fourth November of his tenure.

Mr. Obama began his occupation of the Oval Office in 2009 with the sort of assumptions about his mandate and vision—not to mention his enormous sense of self—generally characteristic of seasoned leaders who have grown distant and overconfident having been seduced by the trappings of power.  In a way, he started out like a second term president. This was all tempered by what happened during the mid-term elections in 2010. 

But history suggests that a second Obama term would be a return to those early-on days of “hope and change,” and likely with a vengeance.  With the freedom that would come from not having to face the electorate again, he could then indeed be more “flexible.” That’s code for “I’ll be able to do what I really want.”

There is one notable exception to the whole second-term-hubris-syndrome and it is the case of Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s.His decision not to run in 1928 – at the height of his popularity – puzzled many. But Coolidge understood the nature of leadership, and its seductions. He explained it this way:

“It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation, which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless or arrogant.”

It appears that “Silent” Cal was a bit of a philosopher, if not prophet.