In one of his more reflective songs, "Man in the Mirror," the late Michael Jackson enshrined a bit of wisdom for the ages: If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.
MJ was on to something. He may not have known much about negotiations, American politics, the budget deficit, or foreign policy. But the principle that we need the capacity to see the world the way it is (and ourselves as well) is a critically important component of success in politics, just as it is in life.
With that in mind, here are five honest looks in the mirror I'd like to hear about but most assuredly never will.
I really would have liked to be a great president, and really thought I could be. But it's probably not going to happen. Forget what I told Diane Sawyer in 2010 -- that I'd rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-termer. It was a good, self-effacing line at the time. But I never meant it. Anyway, right now, I'm not thinking about legacy. I just want to hold onto my job.
The truth is the Republicans were out to get me. But I really made it easy for them. My own sense of grandiosity and illusions about what I could achieve really helped them. I figured I was destined to be a transformational president. After all, the worst economic recession since FDR, two foreign wars, and a dysfunctional political system all seemed to make me the right guy at the right place and time. (After all, I've never failed at anything.) It's no coincidence that I chose to be sworn in on the Lincoln Bible and to recreate Honest Abe's post-inaugural meal right down to the sour cherry chutney.
But the truth is, I misread the political map and the American public. There was no way to be a post-partisan president (and what does that mean anyway?). Most sensible Americans didn't want to be saved and see the country transformed; they wanted relief -- and a guy who could solve their problems. I underestimated the depth of the economic mess I inherited and tacked too quickly to a major piece of health-care legislation, parts of which are so complex and uncertain that even I don't understand them. Jefferson was right: Transformative change shouldn't rest on slender majorities, or in my case only on Democrats.
I'm also not entirely sure I really understood who I was, either. I'm not a transformative risk taker. My MO is to look for balance, to reason things out coolly and deliberately. It's helped me in foreign policy, where I've been pretty competent in avoiding costly messes abroad or making any new ones of my own. But my coolness and deliberative style hasn't helped me all that much at home, where most Americans are focused. People are really worried about the future, and I really couldn't do much on the policy or the politics to reassure them. The fact is, I really don't like politics. I lack FDR's fire-in-the-belly partisanship, LBJ's in-your-face approach to Congress, and Ronald Reagan's genuineness, authenticity, and leadership. The only thing I have going for me now is that the other guy -- Richie Rich -- is more out of touch with the public than I am. It's sad, really. What I told Sawyer could actually come true. If it comes to that, I hope the good president part stays in there. But I'm not so sure.