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Every President Has a First Year

The Miller Center has some history lessons for the next occupant of the oval office. Will he use them? Will she?

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If there’s a single image that tells the story of the first year of the modern U.S. presidency, it’s the photograph of Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispering to President George W. Bush in a Florida classroom on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was Bush’s 34th week on the job.

Bush had flown to Sarasota to promote education reform, the No Child Left Behind package Congress had passed that June. He had been governing largely on domestic policy. It fit the mood of the country, and it suited his natural inclination as a former governor.

His national security team gave him no compelling reason to do otherwise. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of a time of lasting peace, going so far as to say, six months before 9/11: “We don’t have to wake up every morning thinking something terrible is going to happen.”

There, at that moment, you see a president initiated into the presidency. Getty Images

And then Card entered the second-grade classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School. He had chosen his words and planned his moves with economy, seeking to keep the disruption to a minimum. Once he had delivered his message, he would step away to prevent the president from asking him a question. Card didn’t want to prompt a national security colloquy in front of 7- and 8-year-olds and the grown-up pool of journalists.

The president sat at the front of the classroom, his back to the blackboard, facing stage right. Card entered stage left, outside the president’s field of vision. When the teacher turned to ask the children to take out their books, Card walked up behind Bush, bent down and spoke into his right ear. He still recalls his exact words: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

There, at that moment, in the photograph, in the intensity of Bush’s gaze, in the tightness of his mouth, you see a president initiated into the presidency.

Says Card, “I honestly believe that was the moment that he recognized that he was really the president of the United States.”

Pattern leads to a project

Bush wasn’t the first new president to see his domestic agenda diverted overseas. Bill Clinton campaigned with the strategy “It’s the economy, stupid.” Only it wasn’t, not when he took office, not entirely. By his first October, Clinton’s highest priorities came crashing down in the streets of Mogadishu along with two Black Hawk helicopters. Even Woodrow Wilson, the internationalist who took the country into World War I and, afterward, tried to take it into the League of Nations, came into office fully expecting he’d have nothing to do with foreign policy.

So there’s a pattern. In fact, when you study presidential first years, there are several. That’s the basis for the First Year Project, an initiative of the Miller Center, the University of Virginia-affiliated nonpartisan think tank devoted to the study of the presidency. Launched last year and going full force during the current election season and continuing into 2018, the First Year Project has been examining the history of presidential rookie years, identifying the universal truths, and distilling the information into sets of briefing memos and management advice for the next president.

“Oh, I’m having hell,” President Lyndon B. Johnson says at the start of his first full term in a phone call to former President Harry S. Truman. “I just thought I’d call you and try to get a little advice and a little inspiration.” The sound bite became the coda at the end of a First Year Project promotional video. Getty Images

The effort draws on the Miller Center’s considerable assets, including the oral histories it has conducted going back to the Carter administration; its curated archive of the secret White House recordings from the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, and select others going back to FDR; its encyclopedic biographical information on all 43 American presidents; and its extensive network of scholars and experts, in-residence, throughout the University and around the country. Using a Miller Center companion website as its primary platform, the project makes use of other distribution channels as well: its syndicated public-affairs television show, American Forum; a series of live events for political A-listers; and a direct-messaging and networking campaign. The goal is to get First Year analysis in front of the people most likely to serve in or influence the new administration, including the chief executive.

In all, the project seeks to resolve the central dilemma of the presidential first year: that a president’s greatest opportunity for accomplishment exactly coincides with the president’s least amount of on-the-job knowledge. Falter in the first year and you could hobble the rest of your presidency (think: Jimmy Carter). Master it and your success will compound (our own Thomas Jefferson). Or there’s a third way: Fail fast, learn, and adjust (John F. Kennedy).

Ambitious in scope, the program carries even higher aspirations when it comes to practical application. It’s determined not to be just another academic study by yet another think tank. Rather, the Miller Center seeks to create a road atlas by which senior-level officials will actually steer.

Done well, and if circumstances and connections align just right, the First Year Project has the potential to affect the course of the next presidency and those that come after it. The overhanging question is, how open either leading candidate will be to advice on how he or she should govern. And that may depend on whether it’s he, or she.

Why year one is make-or-break

The First Year Project began as a glimmer of an idea when William J. Antholis (Col ’86) applied for his current position as Miller Center chief executive and director, back in the fall of 2014. He saw an opportunity to frame the work of the presidential studies center around the run-up to the 2016 election and its aftermath.

“We had, at the time, a year and a half of presidential elections going on. We would have a transition to office and a new president. That’s what the next three years would look like,” he says.

Weeks after his start date, Antholis convened a retreat in the rolling hills south of Monticello for his team to come up with a project keyed to the election. The participants credit UVA history professor and Miller Center scholar Will Hitchcock with coming up with the first-year focus. He was working on an Eisenhower biography and immersed at the time in 1953, the year the newly elected political outsider was trying to get his bearings in the White House. Hitchcock’s pitch: Every president has a first year; there may be some lessons we can learn by looking at previous presidencies.

As soon as he said that, Antholis says, people around the room started building on his idea, citing what have become some of the First Year Project’s chief selling points: First years have their own timeline, including staffing the executive branch and preparing the first budget. They’re when a president has anything close to a mandate. And, history has shown, they’re often when foreign actors act up, testing the authority and attention span of the new president.

The First Year Project is a Miller Center twist on something Antholis helped lead at the Brookings Institution, where he had served as managing director the previous 10 years. For the 2008 election, Brookings published a single-volume collection of short policy papers called Opportunity 08: Independent Ideas for America’s Next President. The Miller Center project goes beyond policy prescriptions to focus on management of the presidency. It plays to the Miller Center’s core brand, presidential history, and gives it the forward thrust of its core mission, to apply history to the present.

After the retreat, the wheels started turning. The next day Barbara Perry (Grad ’86), who co-chairs the Miller Center’s presidential oral history program, dispatched senior researcher Bryan Craig to mine transcripts for references to first years. He soon found a telling exchange with Jimmy Carter. Looking back at his early days in office, Carter confessed naiveté in thinking that, as an outsider president, he could keep the Washington establishment at bay, the way he had the Atlanta elites as a rural Georgia governor. “I underestimated that. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Carter told the Miller Center in 1982.

President Jimmy Carter underestimated the need to build bridges to the Beltway establishment when he arrived in Washington, he admitted years later in a Miller Center oral history. He’s something of a poster child for the proposition that if you stumble in your first year, you’re hobbled in the subsequent three. Getty Images

It validated the thesis that Year One is make-or-break and determinative of how the subsequent three will play out. Carter, Perry says, “really never got a sure footing. He was a one-term president, and he very much was a failed president.”

Next, Craig rummaged through the Oval Office recordings. There, he found a dispirited Lyndon B. Johnson, less than a month after his inauguration, putting through a call to the retired Harry S. Truman. “Oh, I’m having hell,” Johnson says in answer to Truman’s how’s-it-going small talk. “I’ve got a little bit in the Congress, a little bit with the Indochina, the Vietnamese, and a little bit all over the country, and I just thought I’d call you and try to get a little advice and a little inspiration.”

A little advice and a little inspiration sums up the essence of the First Year Project offerings. The sound clip would become the coda at the end of the introductory video the Miller Center features on its website and presents at events. In succession, the pieces started falling into place. By April 2015, the Miller Center’s governing council greenlighted the $1.5 million- to $2 million-a-year project.

At the core of the project are collections of short essays, organized into thematic volumes. Scholarly in nature, they read like smart op-eds: scrubbed of footnotes, more conclusory than evidentiary, with an authoritative yet conversational tone. The topics include national security, the budget, immigration reform and broken government. Through September 2016, the Miller Center will have published seven of 10 planned volumes. (See “History Lessons” below)

What’s the payoff?

When all is said and the election done, will the right people read it? Will anybody read it? Will the First Year Project actually influence how the next administration gets down to the business of governing?

“That’s the question every think tank, every scholar, every learning institution asks itself,” says Hitchcock. “That’s the great mystery of scholarship: Why do we do it if nobody is paying attention?”

You can find justification in the undertaking, even if, say, the First Year materials land in the mislabeled moving box the transition team never unpacks. The richness of the source materials, the rigor of the scholarship, the savvy of the strategic plan and the diligence in its execution all work to lift the stature of the Miller Center brand and, in the affiliated glory, that of the University.

The focus on first-year governance creates a powerful new lens through which to examine the American presidency. The way the project interrelates the oral histories to the recordings to the other archival materials creates a gestalt effect. Says Jeff Chidester (Grad ’07), the Miller Center’s director of policy programs, who has day-to-day charge of First Year, “Each program is powerful, but collectively it’s extraordinarily powerful.”

Hitchcock can envision the body of work serving as a new set of teaching tools. You can see the materials being discussed and debated across a range of disciplines—history, politics, government and foreign affairs, and leadership and public policy.

But beyond those intrinsic values, the question remains: Can First Year sway a president?

“I don’t expect Donald Trump’s first call will be to the history faculty at the University of Virginia.”
—History professor Will Hitchcock Getty Images

If anyone is an expert on the inner workings of new administrations, it’s Card. He has had leading roles in three presidential transitions: coordinating George H.W. Bush’s move into the White House after Ronald Reagan in 1988-89, managing Bush 41’s handover to Clinton in 1992-93 and serving as Bush 43’s transition chief of staff when he succeeded Clinton in 2000-01. He recommends managing expectations.

“Don’t presume that because you wrote it, it will be read,” Card says.

Christopher Lu, executive director of President Barack Obama’s 2008-09 transition, agrees that transition leaders are pressed. “You have to understand, you’re getting a lot of incoming paper,” he says. “Making them as short and readable and as easy to implement as possible is really the key to making them relevant,” which he says the Miller Center is doing.

Lu, currently the deputy secretary of labor and, before that, Obama’s cabinet secretary, participated in a Miller Center panel in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention in July. He also attended a related luncheon where UVA history professor Alan Taylor spoke on his essay examining Thomas Jefferson’s first year. Lu urges keeping one’s perspective.

“It’s sort of interesting, although it’s hard to draw too many lessons from something that happened over 200 years ago,” he says. “It feels to me we’re in a completely different political dynamic right now, so I think sometimes there’s a tendency to over-read the lessons of history.”

Will he listen? Will she?

To the more specific point of whether a President-elect Donald Trump and his inner circle would make the time, or have the patience, for think-tank briefing materials, you can see facial expressions tighten, even in telephone interviews.

“I pray that they do. My concern is that they don’t,” says Card, a Republican who has kept his distance from the Trump phenomenon. In May he told CBS This Morning he would more likely write in a name than vote Trump. “He’s not tasting his words before he spits them out, and there are consequences to that,” Card said at the time and reaffirms now.

In truth, a president-elect isn’t the only target reader. As Hitchcock puts it, “I don’t expect Donald Trump’s first call will be to the history faculty at the University of Virginia.”

The tougher customer might be Hillary Clinton, who has decades of experience in and around the white house. Getty Images

The Miller Center’s working assumption is that, of the major-party candidates, a Trump administration could actually have the greater openness to First Year intelligence. Antholis makes the point that even an outsider administration, or maybe especially an outsider administration, will need to have insiders at the operational level, and those senior-level people would appreciate the First Year materials. So would an outsider brought in to try to execute policy. Antholis compares it to a company outside the transportation industry taking over an airline: You can’t figure out how to fly the planes, manage schedules and keep track of baggage on your own. You need to rely on people with expertise.

The tougher customer might be a President-elect Hillary Clinton. Having already lived eight years in the White House, spent eight years as a U.S. senator and served more than four years as secretary of state, she could argue she can teach the class herself. She will have no shortage of expert advisers. As Lu points out, her campaign chairman is John Podesta, White House chief of staff during Bill Clinton’s final two years and Lu’s boss during the Obama transition. “There is, hands down, nobody who knows the government better than John Podesta,” Lu says.

(Several attempts to reach New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Trump’s transition chief, and Clinton campaign chairman Podesta were unsuccessful.)

Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and Antholis’ former boss at Brookings, offers that Clinton has the wisdom to know what she doesn’t know. He says, “I think precisely because she does have a firsthand experience of these extraordinarily complex issues she also understands that they’re dynamic and that, to coin a phrase, it’s going to take a village to fix or improve what’s going on in the world.”

Talbott’s team at Brookings is also creating briefing materials for the next president, this time calling it Opportunity 16.

Ultimately, whether the Miller Center’s work reaches the top levels of government will depend less on personalities, ideology or networking savvy. It will come down to the quality of the work itself. From his experience on the Obama transition, Lu says, “A well-crafted document has a very good chance of ending up in the hands of a president-elect.”

Says Hitchcock, “Just spend an hour on a weekend leafing through these materials. That’s all we ask.”

History Lessons

Many of the essays in the Miller Center’s First Year Project tell the story of a particular president’s first year and then offer bulleted lists of Aesopian takeaways. In “Epic Misadventure,” Miller Center scholar Marc Selverstone recounts the hard lessons John F. Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Two takeaways: “Examine contingencies that could go wrong,” and, a lesson JFK would learn for the next year’s Cuban Missile Crisis, “Allow adversaries a dignified retreat.” As Miller Center Director Bill Antholis puts it, “One disaster led to another success.”

University of Texas at Austin’s Jeremi Suri tells the cautionary tale of a president who thought he could rely on his natural political gifts to improvise on foreign policy: “The president’s own scattered, overconfident and ever-shifting style transferred into his policy process, with damaging consequences for the country in the long term.” The president: Bill Clinton. The takeaway: “The longer a president waits to formulate a strategy, the harder it becomes.”

University of Virginia history professor Melvyn P. Leffler chronicles the early dysfunction within George W. Bush’s national security team: “Meetings of deputies and principals were frustrating. [Secretary of State Colin] Powell did not say much; [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld liked to ask questions and pose options rather than state his own clear preferences. [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice struggled to establish her authority, failed to garner the full respect of the principals and deputies and futilely sought consensus when there was none.”

Andrew Card, the president’s chief of staff at the time, doesn’t entirely agree with Leffler’s depiction, but he allows that several members of the team had already held top posts in previous administrations. Says Card, “You had players that didn’t necessarily want to play in their own sandbox. They were comfortable playing in everybody’s sandbox. Sometimes they enjoyed knocking a castle down rather than building one up.”

Leffler’s takeaway: “National security decision-making requires … teamwork among decision-makers, clear lines of authority, a respected and tough-minded national security adviser. … Most of all, it requires a strong, focused, and inquisitive president.”

Some essays offer substantive policy advice, but it’s cafeteria style: Pick your politics. On immigration reform, for example, David A. Martin, a UVA law professor and the former principal deputy general counsel in the Obama Department of Homeland Security, uses the title of his essay to urge the next president to “Go comprehensive, go bold.” Gary Freeman, a UT-Austin government professor, goes boldly contrarian: “[A]void comprehensive immigration reform … at all costs,” he writes in an essay with the Trump-friendly title, “Americans First.”

While most of the essays focus on the modern presidency, two of the more interesting ones present case studies of how Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln overcame existentially difficult first years. Jefferson came into office through a protracted constitutional crisis that put the country on the verge of civil war and the election in the hands of the House of Representatives. UVA history professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor shows how Jefferson leveraged public opinion, mollified the Federalists toward extinction, managed communications and stage-managed dinners to charm his way to more presidential authority than his two predecessors had thought to exert. Among the takeaways: “Cultivate relations with Congress and present yourself as a servant of their interests, even as you retain executive privilege.”

Lincoln wins the Miller Center contest for the worst first year, and that even includes the two presidents who died during their first months in office. William Henry Harrison succumbed to pneumonia in April 1841, James A. Garfield to an assassin’s bullet in September 1881. (For Lincoln, assassination would come in the first year of his second term.) Lincoln tops the charts because the very fact of his election peeled seven states from the Union, before he had even sworn the presidential oath in March 1861. After he had, four more seceded that June. “You’ve got to go with Lincoln,” says Miller Center political scientist Barbara Perry. “Imagine that: It’s not only happening in your presidency. It’s happening because you’re the president.”

In his essay on Lincoln, UVA Civil War historian Gary Gallagher offers caveats against drawing too close a parallel to present times, while describing an uncannily familiar climate of polarization and distrust: an “unwillingness to engage in anything approximating bipartisanship, with people all along the political spectrum expecting the worst from their opponents, routinely accusing them of lying.” Among the lessons of Lincoln: “Don’t ignore the people who don’t agree with you; reach out to opposing constituencies.”

An earlier version of this story erroneously said President Woodrow Wilson took the country into the League of Nations. In fact, Wilson tried to do that but famously failed. We regret the error.

S. Richard Gard Jr. is editor of Virginia Magazine.