February 14, 2010

JUST AS POLK ACHIEVED ALL HIS GOALS, SO HAS THE UR ACHIEVED ALL HIS:

The Myth of the One-Term Wonder (ROBERT W. MERRY, 2/14/10, NY Times)

No doubt President Obama was sincere when he recently told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he’d “rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” The president seemed to be saying that he would make decisions with history in mind rather than voter sentiment, even if voter sentiment would get him tossed out at the next election.

This is perhaps a noble sensibility — and one worth reflecting on as President’s Day approaches. But it’s also misguided. The judgment of history — in the form of presidential rankings yielded up by those periodic polls of heavyweight historians — coincides to a remarkable degree with the contemporaneous judgment of the electorate. With few exceptions, history has not smiled upon one-term presidents. Only one such chief executive has managed with any consistency to get into the historians’ “near great” category.

That president is James K. Polk, who announced upon getting his party’s nomination in 1844 that, if elected, he would serve only one term. He did this in part because, as a small-government man, he possessed a philosophical aversion to entrenched power. But his vow was pragmatic, not just idealistic: he felt the powerful figures of his party would be more likely to unite behind him in the general election if they thought they would have their own shot at the presidency in four years.

Polk was in many ways a smaller-than-life figure — sanctimonious, suspicious by nature, uncomfortable in social settings. But he harbored larger-than-life ambitions. Upon getting elected, he embraced four big goals: reduce tariffs; create an independent treasury; establish American control of California and most of the Oregon Territory. [...]

In the end, he succeeded in all four goals and annexed Texas along the way, thus expanding the United States by a third and creating a transcontinental nation positioned to dominate two oceans. In doing all that, he accomplished what the American people wanted him to do and won the respect of future historians.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 14, 2010 10:37 AM
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