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February 14th, 2010 5:38 pm
How Many Laudatory One-Term Presidents Have There Been?

According to an article in the New York Times, only James K. Polk is a consensus top-tier (great or near great) one-term president.  All the others (e.g. Lincoln, Washington, FDR) won multiple terms.  Polk ranks so high because he actually accomplished his stated goals before voluntarily retiring: reduce tariffs; create an independent treasury; and establish American control of California and most of the Oregon Territory.  Though each was very difficult to achieve, Polk did.

Now consider President Obama’s pledge to be a one-term president, even if it means pursuing the “right” policies for America, despite a majority of Americans opposing him.  Such a statement misreads Polk’s lesson.

All this suggests a false dichotomy underlying Mr. Obama’s expressed resolve to render his presidential decisions without regard to his re-election chances — as if the choice were between political popularity and governmental success. A better approach for any chief executive is to assume that, in presidential politics, as in retailing, the customer is always right, and that the electorate’s verdict will be consonant with history’s consensus. Thus, the aim of every historically minded president, Mr. Obama included, should be to pursue a second term by bundling up voter sentiment into a collection of policies and programs that succeed in the crucial areas most on the minds of the American people.

Mr. Obama can certainly anticipate a one-term fate if he gets crosswise with his citizens. And if that happens, it isn’t likely that on future President’s Days he will ever be remembered as a great chief executive.

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