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And that was after Bush campaigned on both items, and could claim some kind of political mandate for both. In the end, being re-elected does not convey support for everything one says in a campaign. In many cases, people are holding their noses when they vote.
President Obama should not overlook this problem. Like Bush, he ran a harsh and caustic re-election campaign against his challenger. He did not even bother to run on an agenda other than the preservation and extension of his first-term priorities. Should he try to extrapolate from his political success some kind of mandate for specific policies, he will be repeating a major mistake of his predecessor.
Just as bad would be a deliberate effort to try to make history. Presidents who try and shape their historical legacies often trip over the roots of reality. In Bush’s case, it was Hurricane Katrina. Let’s see what blocks Obama’s path — it may be something big like a war, or something close like a scandal, or something systemic, like a perpetually weak economy (some argue it was Benghazi, but that didn’t trip him). Whatever it is, Obama is right now not accounting for it.
My deepest worry is that it is Israel and Iran. We have not years but months before the moment of truth is reached with Iran and its ambitions to wipe out Israel. There was enough discussion about Iran during the campaign and both the president and his challenger created the impression of bipartisan consensus. Reading what was said during the campaign, the Iranian mullahs themselves expressed no preference for the winner — they saw Obama and Romney as roughly equal evils. I hope, in this case, that the mullahs are right.
But my fear is that Obama will seek in the Middle East the kind of legacy-shaping grand bargain that enticed his predecessors — and then go even bigger.
I worry he will seek to settle all outstanding major issues at once — Iran’s nuclear threat, the ambitions of the Palestinian people, Israel’s long-term borders and Jerusalem. I worry that he will not prepare the nation for the risk of war, when military action is precisely what he will need to threaten Iran with. I worry that he will resort to the kind of “come, let us reason together” rhetoric which ignores both the history and political genetics of the region.
Most of all, I worry that he will confuse political craftsmanship with statesmanship. If he does, he wouldn’t be the first two-term president to do so. In fact, he would be the third in a row. And that’s yet another reason — at least in my case — to hope that straight-line prophecies rarely come true.
Noam Neusner is a principal with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies. He was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.