Why 2-Term Presidents Should Not Chase Legacies

The pursuit of favorable historical judgment skews politicians' goals away from small but meaningful improvements.

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Some years ago, I was hired to write a biography of the late Milton Shedd, who won medals for combat bravery as an officer during World War II, founded Sea World with three fraternity brothers in the 1960s, and spent the last half of his life advancing marine research through a non-profit he founded. Reflecting on a long life spent working behind the scenes more often than in the spotlight, he told his children one secret to his successes before he died: that most goals are far easier to accomplish when the people working toward them don't care who gets credit.

I thought of that approach to life as I read Ryan Lizza's informed speculation about what President Obama might do if reelected. A presumption running through the piece is that two-term presidents should spend their last years in office trying to secure a legacy. To cite one example, an adviser trusted by several Republican presidents told Ronald Reagan on the eve of his second term, "The president needs to decide what his legacy is going to be. What is he going to be the most proud of when he's sitting at the ranch with Nancy four and five years after hispresidency? Is it going to be an arms-control agreement? Is it going to be a balanced budget? Is it going to be world-wide economic recovery? Is it going to be a combination of peace and prosperity? Every speech; every appearance; every foreign trip; every congressional phone call and every act involving the president should be made with the long-range goal in mind."

Isn't that an interesting contrast with Milt Shedd?

Shedd's conviction that a leader should set aside concerns about credit sprang from his experience as a second lieutenant and later a captain in the Solomon Islands campaign during World War II. He witnessed the ineffectiveness of commanding officers preoccupied with winning accolades and medals. It affected various actions they took and distorted their judgment. Their subordinates were less likely to give their best for them and more likely to grow resentful. But a commanding officer willing to forgo credit, giving it to others even when it was due him, could produce superior results. He could focus on doing what was right, rather than what was most likely to bring glory or least likely to bring embarrassment. He could cede credit, for there are always men who cared about that sort of thing, and he could get cooperation in return, or so Shedd found even after the army, in business, marriage, and non-profit work.     

Reagan's adviser, Tom Korologos, likely had intentions every bit as good when he advised, "Think about your legacy." Perhaps doing so ennobles a politician, at least compared to the presumed alternative. Pondering history's judgment could at least humble a man. But it seems to me that even if working for a positive legacy is better than, say, waging transitory battles over minutiae, perhaps the country would be even better served if second-term presidents just decided to do what's right without giving a damn whether history credits or forgets them.

A man in search of a legacy needn't focus on the most urgent priority. His desired end is a perception, not a reality.

For there is a difference between a focus on "doing what's right" compared to "securing a legacy." A man in search of a legacy needn't focus on the most urgent priority; he focuses on the subset of issues perceived to have gravitas or likely to be remembered or that won't force him to share credit. His desired end is a perception, not a reality. And he prefers doing one big thing, even in situations where the opportunity cost is 10 little things that together would've been better. When you're intent on a legacy, long-shot gambles at least afford a chance of success -- whereas sure-thing, incremental improvements are a failure. They confer no legacy at all.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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