Paul Pillar

Mr. Trump, Make Yourself a Successful One-Term President

Dear Mr. President-elect:

Congratulations on your victory.  You have shown countless naysayers to be wrong about your prospects.  You have emerged victorious in the most important political contest in the world.  You are, without any doubt, a huge winner. 

Now I am going to make a recommendation that may sound jarring, given the mood of the moment.  But please hear me out.  This suggestion is made with your own best interests in mind.

You should announce that you will serve only one term as president.

Your first reaction to this idea may be that the only people whose interests that would serve are those who want nothing to do with you and would like to be rid of you at the first opportunity.  But that’s not the case at all; for the moment, just ignore those people.  The purpose of this recommendation is to increase the chance that your presidency will be successful, in multiple senses—most importantly, in the sense that the entire nation will be well-served, but also in the sense of your more personal interests and your place in history.

To begin to understand why, consider the copious commentary we have heard since election day along the lines of “which Trump will we get?”—the epithet-hurling campaigner or a more thoughtful leader, glimpses of which have appeared in between the epithets.  Along with the great political unease in the land today, there is much uncertainty about whether to give you the benefit of the doubt.  Many who suspect we will get the Trump of the just-completed campaign are disinclined to give you that benefit.  If they withhold cooperation, you will be less likely to accomplish whatever you hope to accomplish as president.

An announcement that you will serve a single term would be a loud and clear declaration that you are leaving the campaign mode, not just now but forever.  Many of the uneasy people would be more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.  You would get more cooperation, and your programs are likely to get more support, because of how people interpret your motivations and inclinations.

Many people also would be less inclined to oppose you and your programs because of how such an announcement would affect their motivations.  In a more perfect world, this would not be required.  People of all political persuasions ought to take the attitude that President Obama expressed after he met with you at the White House, when he said, “Most of all, I want to emphasize to you, Mr. President-elect, that we now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed—because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”  Unfortunately, such a constructive attitude has been too conspicuous by its absence in recent years, especially in opposition to President Obama himself.  Rush Limbaugh helped to set the poisonous tone when he declared as Mr. Obama was about to take office, “I hope Obama fails.”  Then Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stated that his caucus’s number one priority—a higher priority than economic prosperity, national defense, or anything else—was to make Barack Obama a one-term president.

Congressional Republicans then acted consistently with those priorities, and continued acting the same way into Mr. Obama’s second term.  The pattern was to try to deny the president any achievements credited to him, regardless of the implications for the broader national interest.  The Republican posture toward the Affordable Care Act, of uncompromising determination to kill the program altogether, has been perhaps the most conspicuous example.  That posture was maintained even though the ACA was built around the commercial health insurance system and was Romneycare before it was Obamacare, and even though, as you appear to recognize in some recent comments, the sensible approach would be for both parties to work together to modify the program where it needs improvement.  Congressional Republicans were ready to apply a similar frustrate-at-every-turn approach toward a President Hillary Clinton, with pre-election talk of impeachment and of refusal to consider any Supreme Court nominees for four years.

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