President George W. Bush (center), meets with (from left) former President George H.W. Bush, President-elect Barack Obama, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office on January 7, 2009. This picture is in the public domain.
At the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza poses a thoughtful question as the 2012 election campaign proceeds – “What would Obama do if re-elected?”
In November, 1984, President Ronald Reagan was reëlected in a landslide victory over Walter Mondale, taking forty-nine states and fifty-nine per cent of the popular vote. The Reagan revolution was powerfully reaffirmed. Soon after, Donald Regan, the new chief of staff, sent word to a small group of trusted friends and Administration officials seeking advice on how Reagan should approach his last four years in office. It was an unusual moment in the history of the Presidency, and the experience of recent incumbents offered no guidance. No President since Dwight D. Eisenhower had served two full terms. John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson, overwhelmed by the war in Vietnam, had declined to run for reëlection in 1968. Richard Nixon resigned less than seventeen months into his second term. Gerald Ford (who was never elected) and Jimmy Carter were defeated. By the nineteen-eighties, it had become popular to talk about the crisis of the Presidency; a bipartisan group of Washington leaders, with Carter’s support, launched the National Committee for a Single Six-Year Presidential Term.
Regan’s effort to foresee a successful second term is documented in a series of memos at the Reagan Library. President Obama, who in November could face one of the tightest bids for reëlection in history, has periodically spoken of his admiration for Reagan. “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory for America,” he told a Reno, Nevada, newspaper in early 2008. “He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism.” From the inception of his Presidential bid, Obama has sought to present himself as a leader with far-reaching ideas, and has prided himself on his ability to look past the politics of the moment. To the degree that he is able to ponder his strategy for the next four years, it’s natural to think he might steal a glance at the Reagan playbook. Responding to Regan’s confidential memo, Tom Korologos, an adviser to every Republican President from Nixon to George W. Bush, told the Reagan White House that the second term should be viewed from the standpoint of the President’s intended legacy.