Dear Mr. President,
It’s been nearly a year since Inauguration day, and it’s fair to say that things could be better. I think you know the lay of the land, but please permit me a brief summary.
Just two months ago, on the first anniversary of your election, and the first time the voters had spoken since then, your party lost state gubernatorial and house races in Virginia and New Jersey to unabashed conservatives. These are two states you carried in the election, so perhaps the depth and meaning of your victory is not quite what you supposed.
The bigger picture is darkening, too. Your health care timetable is slipping again, despite the House’s passing a bill in mid-November. You had hoped to get a law passed last summer; now, depending on what the Senate does and the prospects of a deal with the House, it looks as if you might not get a bill until well into 2010. If then. It could still fall apart, or end up being less than you had hoped.
Whatever happens with health care, Blue Dog Democrats will be more nervous than ever about looking too liberal when they go to voters next year—that’s why 39 Democrats voted against the House’s health care bill. And the longer the health care ordeal drags on, the harder it will be to get Congress to deal with your other priorities: cap and trade, immigration reform, financial reform and more. Delay won’t help you with independent voters who have been drifting to the right, or who never left. And until unemployment drops below 8 percent or so, your standing in the polls is likely to keep edging down. It will more than edge down as long as unemployment is still rising. And you’ve gotten yourself in a contest with Fox News that you can’t win: Buckets of ink beat the bully pulpit every time.
Meanwhile, things are unraveling overseas. Everyone on the planet watched both Bibi Netanyahu and King Abdullah blow you off over your peace process initiative. You huffed and you puffed and you flopped, in the process leaving Abu Mazan up a ladder he is hard put to get down. Hamid Karzai, somebody who would be living in exile without U.S. guns and money, left you looking flat-footed over the Afghan election. Pakistan and Iran are playing games with you. People in places like Turkey, Russia and China are starting to think you can be rolled. And some people in Poland and the Czech Republic feel a bit flattened as a result. You didn’t have a consensus on carbon policy at home to take to Copenhagen; all those starry-eyed European friends of yours have not been happy about that. Meanwhile French leaders, their feet planted firmly on the ground, have been furious over the inadvertent discounting of their national prestige, and British leaders have been barely less incensed. As for the Germans, you should have been in Berlin on the evening of November 9, or else not have gone to Copenhagen to plead Chicago’s Olympic case: The Europeans saw the contrast.
Still, you’ve been lucky so far. You have not yet been woken in the middle of the night by your National Security Advisor and told, “Mr. President, we have a problem.” Meanwhile, the American press and the chattering classes have not yet realized just how much foreign policy trouble you’re in. But they’ll figure it out soon; some already have. More commentators will start connecting the dots, and then you will need to brace yourself for a rash of high-profile stories talking about a presidency in crisis. And you’re feeding them: You agreed to accept the Nobel Prize just a few days before the Copenhagen climate meeting, and the contrast between the shiny big prize in Oslo and the Copenhagen confusion offers an irresistible target for your critics.
Mr. President, your critics aren’t wrong; your presidency isn’t going well, and things will probably get worse before they get better. You have some tough weeks and months ahead. But don’t feel too bad about this: Crisis is what presidencies are made of. Consider Lincoln.
Lincoln got elected, and South Carolina seceded even before his White House stationery order arrived. All winter, while waiting to take the oath of office, he tried to keep the Union together, but the Confederacy formed anyway, and Jefferson Davis was sworn into office even before Lincoln. Desperate to keep the Upper South on his side, Lincoln negotiated and delayed. He flopped: Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee fell away; Kentucky declared itself neutral. The war’s first major battle at Bull Run was a fiasco; the army disintegrated and fled back to the Potomac. That December, Lincoln suffered a foreign policy disaster, too. A U.S. Navy ship intercepted two Confederate “diplomats” headed for London on a British ship. The “diplomats” were arrested; Britain protested with utmost vigor and threatened war. Lincoln, humiliated, climbed down.
Mr. President, as late as September 1864, Lincoln thought he would fail—that General McClelland would be elected on a peace platform, and that he would be remembered as the man who sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to their deaths in a ruinous, losing war. Think about how that must have felt during the long, lonely nights, trapped in the White House with a psychotic wife and the ghosts of his two dead sons.
Mr. President, I hate to tell you this, but you are now just getting the first small hints about the nature of the job you have “won.” You’re feeling the first gentle breezes of the kind of hurricanes that envelop Presidents in difficult times. I don’t know how you will weather these storms. Nobody does. You’re going to have good days as well as bad. In some ways, I think you’re likely to have an easier time than some of your critics predict. The economic cycle has turned. When you run for re-election (if you are crazy enough to want four more years in the White House), you will probably be running at a time of economic growth and falling unemployment. Overseas, America is in better shape than many people think, and you’ve got some talented people around you.
The chances are, though, that you are going to have to change directions here and there. Lincoln tried for almost three years to end the war by conciliating the South before concluding that crushing it was the only way to proceed. FDR ran for office denouncing Herbert Hoover’s budget deficits and was still an isolationist well into his second term; reality changed his mind. When Truman started out hoping to bring the troops home and cut the defense budget after World War II, reality changed his mind, too. The last thing Woodrow Wilson wanted was to spend his presidency concentrating on foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson came into office a strict constructionist, but, though he seems to have believed the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional, it was just too good to pass up.
Mr. President, nobody can really tell you what to do. Some of the ideas you brought with you into the Oval Office are the lodestars that should guide you through the storms ahead; some are foolish misconceptions you will have to scrap. At this point, I doubt if you or anybody else really knows which are which. With luck and by the grace of God you will figure it out. Remember that a lot of us out here wish you the best. Godspeed, sir, and congratulations again on the anniversary of your historic inauguration. Welcome to the rest of your first term.