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