Whoever wins on November 4 will be ascending to the job at one of the most difficult times for an American chief executive in at least half a century. When the votes are counted his people might ruefully conclude that the victor is not Barack Obama or John McCain. The real winner will be Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee, or some now happily anonymous figure whose star will rise in the next four turbulent years.
2008 may be the best year there has been to lose an election.
This sobering reality was startlingly underscored this week by none other than Tom Daschle, the former leader of the Senate Democrats, the national co-chairman of Mr Obama’s presidential campaign, and the likely White House chief of staff in an Obama administration. He told a Washington power breakfast that he thought the winner of the election would have a 50 per cent chance at best – at best – of winning a second term in 2012.
There follows a really entertaining list of all the multiple and varied “challenges” before us.
You don’t have to loathe President Bush to acknowledge that America’s capabilities and standing in the world are seriously diminished at a time when its tasks are larger and more complex than they have been in decades. With its economic wherewithal now further impaired, the prospects for real success anywhere in the next four years look constrained.
Yet all this might be too gloomy a prognosis. Previous periods of apparently existential crisis in the US have certainly produced one-term disasters: James Buchanan in 1857, Herbert Hoover in 1929, Jimmy Carter in 1977 spring unpleasantly to mind. But the genius of America is that apocalyptic challenges have also, in time, produced the men to match them: Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, Ronald Reagan in 1981.
So perhaps, rather than simply assuring us that the man who wins in November is a sure loser, history suggests an unsettlingly binary possibility. Either the next president is destined for the cruel obscurity of one-term failure. Or he is set to join the pantheon.
Then again, look carefully at those dates and consider a crueller possibility for this year’s winner: that desperate times like these actually produce both types of president, sequentially: a one-term disaster who paves the way for a true giant.
God, not taken from that list above, I hope. So then who? Maybe we should open elections to the foreign born…