Congratulations, Barack Obama. You now join a small club of 16 two-term presidents. (Of those, only 13 actually served out their second four-year term -- William McKinley, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon weren't so lucky.)
An eight-year run does count for something. There are no great one-termers. All consequential presidents require a bond with the public that the validation of a second term provides. Consider it a necessary but not sufficient condition for presidential greatness.
Governing this republic effectively is hard and sometimes, I think, borders on the impossible. To a certain extent, the founders willfully contributed to the problem by designing a system that the late constitutional scholar Edwin Corwin brilliantly described as an open invitation to struggle. They did so to make the accretion of too much power by an individual or branch of government very hard.
But they still reserved for the presidency the capacity -- depending on the president and his circumstances -- to lead energetically, in a way 535 elected legislators or 9 Supreme Court jurists cannot. The presidency is the only national office all Americans can vote for -- it stands for something special, and remains to this day, regardless of its flaws and tendency to disappoint, the repository of our hopes and aspirations.
John F. Kennedy once said that nobody should judge presidents -- not even poor James Buchanan -- because it's impossible to know what it's really like to be in the White House.
Fair enough. At the same time, we elected you -- myself included. And, not to put too fine a point on it, you work for us.
And so, having worked for several of your predecessors on Middle East policy -- and having watched Republican and Democratic administrations succeed and fail in foreign policy -- I don't have the slightest reservation in offering up a number of suggestions for your second term.
1. Don't look for transformation this time around.
I get the fact that in your first term you saw yourself as a transformative figure -- a leader with a mandate to save the nation through bold policies at home and abroad.
And maybe you thought the country wanted a savior. I know that Abraham Lincoln was very much on your mind. With the possible exception of George W. Bush, you owe your presidency to him more than any other man.
We got the point. You recreated part of Lincoln's train journey to Washington, were sworn in on his Bible, and all but reenacted his post-inaugural lunch -- right down to the sour cherry chutney served on Mary Todd Lincoln's china.
With all due respect, Mr. President, try to be a tad more humble and less narcissistic in your second term. I knew Abe Lincoln, and you're no Abe Lincoln. I know you already think you're entitled to be in the presidential hall of fame, but forget transforming the country at home. Americans don't want a polarizing transformer; they want a president who can fix what's broken -- this time with the support of Republicans so that change can be legitimate, authoritative, and successful.
Abroad, you also thought you would transform the world. You seemed to believe that, somehow, your own persona and the imperfections of your predecessor could combine to solve historic conflicts and convert adversaries into friends. But the world wasn't and isn't going to be transformed by you or anyone else. Look around at the 192 other nations represented in the United Nations. Do you see any transformative figures there, or international conflicts just waiting to be solved?
If the world is amenable to anything these days, it's transaction. Sports analogies are usually horrible, but in this case I think one works: Forget home runs; try small ball. Moderate progress, after all, can buy time to deal with the bigger issues like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (more on that later).