Replica of the President Johnson's Oval Office at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Jay Godwin, courtesy the LBJ Library.
I was watching television on the night 50 years ago when Lyndon B. Johnson stunned America by announcing that he would not seek re-election in the 1968 presidential race.
I wonder whether the next few years may bring a repeat of that spectacle.
The Oval Office holds a powerful grip on those who occupy it. Franklin D. Roosevelt could never tear himself away, even as his body failed and his energy flagged against the demands of a world war. Harry Truman gained office through the accident of FDR’s death and won a second term almost as accidentally. War hero Dwight D. Eisenhower served two terms despite a bad heart, and only warned about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” as he was on his way out the door. Johnson came to office amid the tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and left it as the country tore itself apart over his prosecution of the Vietnam War.
Until now, every president since Johnson has done his best to cling to the office. Richard Nixon’s henchmen burgled and bugged the Democratic National Committee. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon to get Watergate out of the way, only to seemingly forget that the Iron Curtain existed. Jimmy Carter’s re-election effort went up in flames in a failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. Ronald Reagan’s confidence in his economic policies proved well-placed, and he overwhelmed his 1984 opponent, Walter Mondale. George H.W. Bush was not so successful against Bill Clinton. After a midterm wipeout in 1994, Clinton triangulated his way to re-election two years later. George W. Bush rode military success in Iraq to re-election in 2004, saving his unpopular Social Security reforms (and the unsuccessful Iraqi reconstruction) for his second term. Barack Obama spent his entire first term “evolving” on social issues into the liberal crusader he became as a lame duck.
Does Donald Trump look like someone whose top priority is getting re-elected? Or even like someone who particularly cares whether he is re-elected or not? He doesn’t look like that to me.
On topic after topic – taxes, health care, trade, North Korea and especially his signature issue, immigration – it is hard to see where Trump can be accused of pulling his punches to improve his own electoral prospects in 2020. He reverses himself often enough, but that seems to reflect his belief that consistency is the bugaboo of lesser minds than his own. He hasn’t extended any olive branches to his critics in the press, other than maybe to try to whack them with it. He probably is not wrong to suspect that they would put it to the same use if given the chance.
If Trump is treading lightly anywhere, it may be in his handling of the Iran nuclear deal. He has never said anything positive about it, but so far, he has not abrogated it either. Yet it seems an intellectual leap to assume that any moderation in his stance on the nuclear pact is related to his political standing. It seems more reasonable to assume that other demands are more pressing, or that the president believes time is his ally as he presses other parties to the agreement on trade and other matters.
We all know Trump hates to lose; he has told us so himself often enough. So from his point of view, why risk losing an office he has already won? Whether he runs in 2020 or not, sooner or later he ends up either as an ex-president or as one who died in office. Being an ex-president is generally more fun.
I am not ready to predict that Trump won’t run again. Predicting anything the man might do has proven to be a fraught exercise, and as I noted, the Oval Office has a strong pull. The president has already laid some groundwork, in the form of a letter informing the Federal Election Commission that he qualifies (though has not officially announced his status) as a candidate in 2020, and his re-election committee has engaged in steady fundraising for the past year or so. Trump might convince himself that the country can’t get along without him serving a second term, and also that he can win one. Doubters should remember that he has been right about his ability to win an election in the past.
But it is easy to picture Donald Trump simply declaring himself the most successful president in our lifetimes and flying off into the Palm Beach sunset aboard Trump One. Rather than marking time through his first term trying to win a second, behaving as though he is content to be a one-term president liberates Trump to be Trump. I haven’t seen any signs that he wishes to be anything else.