Why 2-Term Presidents Should Not Chase Legacies

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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.

Despite all this, the notion that Obama ought to work toward a legacy if reelected is seemingly uncontroversial, perhaps because it appeals to our romantic notions of the presidency, our desire to see men aspiring for greatness on the stage of history, to succeed or to fail before our eyes. Lizza writes that America is wondering whether Obama is "an aspiring compromiser, a lawyerly strategist, or a bold visionary willing to gamble to secure his legacy." It is irrational that the last of those appeals most to so many of us (Lizza's tellingly loaded description notwithstanding), for citizens presumably gain from good compromises or good strategy, whereas a gambler rolling the dice to secure his legacy? Sounds risky. And his incentives needn't align with ours.

If Obama wins, he'll doubtless have a lot of people assuring him that the issue most important to them happens to be the one most likely to secure his legacy. He'll doubtless ponder his own legacy too, surrounded as he is by a press and culture that would rather have a larger than life history-maker as president than a quietly competent man who executes the laws for four or eight years. I can't stop everyone from whispering in his ear about the need to work toward a legacy.

(Stop it!)

But I can urge a different course. A legacy is a meta-thing. At best, it is a judgment others make that what you've done is good and right. It's better to make the doing itself your end, to decide what best serves the interests of the United States, and to accomplish whatever that might be, partly by freeing yourself from the psychological desire to get your due, which always skews your actions. To actively pursue a legacy, rather than the most important or prudent priorities whether or not they produce one, is to reveal yourself as a selfish, egotistical man with an excessive concern about what others think of you. These very common human flaws are best avoided.

The leader whose end is a legacy least deserves a good one.

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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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