By Frank Sesno
(CNN) — President-elect Barack Obama deserves extra credit for looking back even as he looks ahead. Knowing that he’s about to take the helm of this floundering ship of state, he’s sought some inspiration from captains who’ve navigated these waters before.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time reading [Abraham] Lincoln,” Obama told CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “There is wisdom there and humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful.”
Good stuff. A president with a sense of history.
But Obama might also find it helpful to study some more recent presidential experience in order to avoid early-on mistakes that can send a presidency reeling, define it in unflattering ways, and distract from the long-haul work that really matters.
So here are half-dozen simple lessons drawn from recent experience:
Lesson one: Don’t be naive and don’t overreach.
President John F. Kennedy learned this lesson early on with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
The top-secret operation had been in the planning stages for nearly a year before Kennedy was sworn in. The holdover CIA director and top military brass confidently assured the young president that the operation would succeed. They believed that Fidel Castro, the communist firebrand just 90 miles from American shores, could be toppled by a bunch of U.S.-trained Cuban exiles.
But the invasion was riddled with military and intelligence problems. Castro knew the invasion was coming. He had his forces ready. The invaders never made it past the beaches. Just three months into the job, JFK had an epic failure on his hands.
He went on national television on April 21, 1961, and said: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. I am the responsible officer of the government.”
He got credit for his candor. But Kennedy’s bright promise was tarnished. He had bought into a flawed plan that promised more than it could deliver, authored by people who were as certain of the outcome as they were of themselves.
Lesson Two: Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
In the list of presidential campaign one-liners, this one’s an all-star: “Read my lips, no new taxes!” They are the six words that helped elect — and later probably defeat — President George H.W. Bush. The words defined his policies and set expectations for his presidency.
Bush knew he confronted a gaping deficit. In his inaugural address he declared, “We have more will than wallet.” He wanted to do something about it. So he started negotiating with congressional leaders — and Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate — to restrain spending and reduce the red ink.
The budget deal they cut was a breakthrough, a pay-as-you-go formulation that would change the landscape of budgeting. It paved the way for the balanced budget that would come during President Bill Clinton’s tenure. To get the deal, however, Bush had to agree to some tax increases.
Conservatives never forgave him. It was a flip-flop that alienated the base of his party and may have cost him re-election.
Lesson Three: Know Your Audience.
Fast forward to President Clinton. Just a month on the job — he proposed a big new energy tax. It would tax all types of traditional energy to promote conservation and new energy technologies.
Clinton’s advisers insisted it wouldn’t cost all that much. At the beginning, maybe 75 cents or so per month on a typical family’s electric bill; maybe 25 bucks a year in new gasoline taxes. Even after it was fully phased in, they said, it would only raise energy costs by about 4.5 percent.
But the public balked, business howled, Republicans attacked and Democrats — who held majorities in both the House and the Senate — rebelled. After four months of trying, Clinton dropped the idea. But he was politically bruised.
Clinton had misread the Congress and the public. It was an early indicator of problems to come.
Lesson Four: Timing matters.
Clinton again. This time gays in the military — “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This one, too, was right out of the gate.
Clinton wanted to liberalize policy to allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military. But conservatives and lots of senior military officials resisted.
The issue became a front-line battle in the war between social conservatives and proponents of gay rights. After months of divisive debate, the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy emerged. It said sexual orientation “will not be a bar to service unless manifested by homosexual conduct.” The new policy didn’t go nearly as far as the president wanted, but he considered it progress on a matter of principle.
The fight roiled the political waters far more than Clinton had expected and kicked up a controversy that many believe could have been better framed and fought later on, after the president had more accomplishments — and more political capital — to his name.
Lesson Five: You’re judged by the company you keep.
We’ll go back to President Ronald Reagan for this one, though just about every president has experienced it. Someone ends up grabbing headlines through incompetence, scandal, or a big mouth. When it happens early, it’s especially bad because it can lead to inquiries, investigations and headlines that crowd out the agenda the president wants to pursue.
Reagan got burned when his national security adviser, Richard Allen, turned radioactive because he’d allegedly accepted cash and gifts in exchange for access to the White House. He denied it and an internal review cleared him of wrongdoing. But it didn’t matter. Perception mattered. Less than a year on the job, Allen was forced to resign.
As Reagan found throughout his presidency, you’re judged by the company you keep.
Lesson Six: Don’t micromanage.
President Jimmy Carter gained a reputation from the very start for going line by line through thick budgets, for reading sprawling pieces of legislation from start to finish, and for packing off to Camp David with thick briefing books. Journalist and former Carter speechwriter James Fallows has written that Carter even reviewed requests to use the White House tennis courts.
Carter became known as a myopic micromanager, smart and well-meaning but mired in detail. It was a reputation that stuck and a lesson that still resonates.
So, Obama has some more presidential history to study. Maybe he’ll find these lessons helpful, too.
They are just snippets of experience, examples of costly stumbles that can take on a life of their own. They are to be avoided if humanly and politically possible, especially in the early days because, as the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.