Ted Widmer: When a New President Inherits a Mess

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is the author of "Ark of the Liberties: America and the World."]

After a nerve-rattling week in which the U.S. financial system was shaken to the core, here's a simple question: Why on Earth would anyone want to be president right now?

ven in the best of times, it's a grueling job. But the problems of 2008 seem unusually intractable, and despite the fine talk one sometimes hears about reconciliation, the electorate will be divided no matter who wins in November. Even Bush's snarkiest critics would have had trouble predicting all the rough weather of the second term, from Hurricane Katrina to the smoldering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the bursting of the housing bubble, the financial meltdown and the Recession That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Would any sane person want to inherit this?

Of course, even to pose that question assumes that candidates for the nation's highest office are normal reasoning creatures. Most of us would pause before spending millions of dollars to travel thousands of miles to eat hundreds of chicken dinners with people who snipe at our clothes, our hair cuts and our every public utterance. Losing is no fun, but is winning even worse? "Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm," Lyndon B. Johnson once said. "There's nothing to do but to stand there and take it."

So what does it mean to inherit the presidency in an hour of crisis? Historically, it has usually meant a push to reverse the last fellow's policies. That holds true even in relatively tranquil times. In 2001, for instance, the incoming Bush team, which scorned its predecessors as ineffectual, weak and morally compromised, made a mantra of the term "ABC" ("Anything But Clinton"). Their contempt was so thorough that a satirical headline in a story about the inauguration in the Onion read, "Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over.' "

Ironically, the outgoing Bush team may be in for similar treatment from the next crowd. With about 80 percent of the electorate saying that the country is on the wrong track, it doesn't take a brilliant tactician to suggest that a new direction would work well for either Barack Obama or John McCain. ("ABB" isn't terribly catchy; perhaps "ABBA," for "Anything But Bush Administration," might work better in the year of "Mamma Mia"?) As even McCain's campaign makes clear, anti-Bushism is likely to be the refrain of the early months of 2009, no matter who is elected.

But how well does rejecting the policies of one's predecessor work? Here's the historian's answer: pretty well. A glance at other difficult presidential transitions shows that in nearly every case -- though not quite all of them -- the presidency that came after a troubled one succeeded, in both senses of the word. And it usually did so by taking a brisk 180-degree turn.

The tradition of trampling on the last guy's policies is nearly as old as the presidency itself. It was hard for John Adams to improve upon George Washington, but it was easy for Thomas Jefferson's crowd to blast Adams. Abraham Lincoln started off under the worst conditions imaginable, but his majestic first inaugural address sent a clear message that James Buchanan's prevarications were a thing of the past. Grover Cleveland, the only president in history to succeed two different men, was able to declare a new beginning not once, but twice.

After Lincoln's, no presidency began under darker clouds than Franklin D. Roosevelt's. The U.S. financial system was in vastly worse shape than it is even today, totalitarianism was looming abroad, and the New York Stock Exchange had actually shut down. But Roosevelt knew that Herbert Hoover had given him, in FDR's own words, "an easy act to follow." On that dark inaugural day in 1933, the new president was only five sentences into his maiden speech when the sonorous attack on "fear itself" came; nothing was the same after that. Roosevelt launched a sustained attack on Hoover's laissez-faire policies; there's a reason he called the New Deal new....

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