Hunger Reads: Obama’s Mind Games and How To Succeed When You’re Running for Office
So you’re stuck in line at Chipotle, bored, behind on your news-reading—yet not exactly jonesing for another rehash of the headlines. Enter the Hunger Reads, our daily compendium of the political stories we think you’ll actually enjoy reading. (At least more than reading the take-out menu over and over.)
If a president misreads his moment, it can throw his presidency off course. Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the court is perhaps the most famous example of a serious political blunder. But many trip right out of the gate. Bill Clinton pushed to allow gays to serve in the military at the beginning of his first term, ending his political honeymoon about as soon as it started. In the first months of George W. Bush’s presidency, either due to a lack of attention or respect, Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords abandoned the Republican Party, handing control of the Senate to the Democrats. Obama continued to back the former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for a Cabinet post despite the controversy over his unpaid taxes. Later Obama admitted he was blind to the conflict between his promise to run a White House with no special-interest influence and the loophole he was creating for his friend Daschle.
A president who sees the possibilities of the moment can rack up achievements that seemed foreclosed. According to Robert Caro’s account in The Path to Power, Johnson knew instinctively after John F. Kennedy’s assassination that he could use the slain president’s memory to pile up successes in Congress. Caro quotes Johnson discussing the mechanics of his strategy: “I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.” When Johnson addressed Congress days after Kennedy’s death, he did just that: “[No] eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
Voters need to appreciate these currents almost as much as presidents in order to accurately assess a president’s political performance or a challenger’s promises. How steep was the opposition that a president faced? How boxed in was his agenda by the unexpected emergencies of the day? Did these fire alarms increase his political capital or drain it? Is the challenger offering pie-in-the-sky promises? Will his proposals face public fatigue, or are people hungry for sweeping change?