In a December 18 interview, President Obama stated that he "would rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president." Several things need to be said about this apparently straightforward remark.
American political history includes several examples of individuals who have chosen to be one-term presidents. Among these was James K. Polk, a modest but determined individual who fulfilled all of the promises he made and then left Washington, only to die six weeks later. As Robert W. Merry points out in A Country of Vast Designs (New York, 2009), Polk announced at the beginning of his campaign that he would serve only one term. This, he believed, was the only way to avoid divisions within his own party that might have blocked important conservative initiatives (among them reducing government spending to the minimum necessary for national defense and stabilizing the currency). Polk was, in fact, a "really good" president.
In other cases, really good presidents, including John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt, failed to be reelected after their first full term. And then there was Jimmy Carter, who was neither a two-term president nor really good.
The problem with Obama's comment is that it suggests that good presidents are those who set themselves against the people. They persist in the pursuit of an unpopular agenda, and for that reason, they are not reelected. It is astounding to hear a president admit such a view only eleven months into his first term. Perhaps Obama held this view of the presidency before he even decided to run. The implications of this fact are disturbing because they suggest that Obama intended all along to force his socialist agenda upon the American people, even if doing so should limit him to one term in office.
Obama's view that he can and should compel the country to accept his radical views entails a great deal of arrogance. It also rests upon an imperial view of government and of the presidency in particular. This is the view that government decides what is best for the people and imposes its will by every means of trickery, deal-making, and intimidation. It is the opposite of the transparency and openness that Obama promised in his campaign.
Not one of our truly great presidents has held an imperial view of government, and not one has been so arrogant as our current head of state. Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan were essentially modest individuals who were thrust into the nation's highest office at times of great crisis. They performed great deeds without claiming greatness for themselves. Each was a servant of the public rather than a prima donna who believes that the public owe him adulation.
If Obama actually were a "really good" president, there would be no reason for him to serve only one term. The American people would recognize his accomplishments and reelect him. What Obama actually meant to say is that he would prefer to be a really radical president who has set himself against the wishes of the people and so cannot hope to be reelected. He prefers to be this kind of president because as an elitist, he believes that he is superior to the mass of people and so has the right to decide for them what is best. Nothing that happens during his presidency and nothing that is said will convince him otherwise.
On nearly every major issue, the president's policy has proved unpopular once it has been explained clearly. This is why Obama so often engages in secrecy and obfuscation. It is why his party in Congress conducts secret negotiations and passes major legislation on Thanksgiving or just before Santa's arrival on Christmas Eve. It is why bills are passed without having been read even by their sponsors. Obama's party is legislating in the dark because it does not want the American people to know what it is doing.
This fact is at the heart of what Obama means by a "really good" president. A really good president, he believes, is one who swiftly and furtively enacts unpopular legislation so that by the time anyone can object, it has become a fait accompli. A really good president is one who disguises his ideologically extreme positions long enough to "transform" the country in ways that will cost him reelection once the truth is made known. This is why in the President's mind, a "really good" president must so often be a one-term president.
It's also obvious what Obama intends by a "mediocre two-term president." Obama has spent an entire year obsessing over George W. Bush, a president whom history has yet to judge mediocre or otherwise. In every one of his speeches, including the recent State of the Union address, Obama has gone out of his way to draw invidious comparisons between his presidency and that of his predecessor. Not only is this ungracious, but it is also dishonest. George Bush is no longer the issue. The only reason to make him the issue is to distract public opinion from one's own failings. Maybe it would not be necessary to invoke the name of his predecessor if Obama had been successful in at least one of his initiatives. But so far this administration has been a failure, and the public realizes it. Two-thirds of Americans believe that Obama has accomplished little or nothing.
The only way to become a really good president is to love America, to respect its people, and to exert leadership based on a deep understanding of the nation's history and traditions. Obama has failed to exert this sort of leadership. Is it because he lacks a clear vision of the future based on knowledge of the past, or is it because he despises this past and wishes to cleanse the nation of its sins? If so, he is wrong. America's past is not guiltless, but it is the most exceptional, admirable, and illustrious in human history. A president who fails to appreciate this will never lead the country in the right direction.
At the end of the day, Obama may well be a one-term president, but not because he is "really good." It is because, despite all evidence to the contrary, he believes himself to be so really good that he is destined to be a one-term president.
Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics.