This presidential campaign is the first in modern memory where three candidates claimed to be from different eras, each embodying a long-gone time and place. Airdancing from New England’s rugged outback to the capital city’s comfortable primrose path, from the tea party’s loudmen in the seedy precincts of New Jersey’s Meadowlands to the establishment guys on Wall Street. Each man presented himself as the different kind of president — with varying degrees of success. They will be swapping images now, until it’s finally decided — not that it ever really is settled.
A long-ago president brings different risks to the table.
Barack Obama had no respect for power — a virtue when walking up on it, a deficiency when carrying it out. The Republicans have been looking to lock him in an Oval Office mattress for years. And some Republicans may be counting on him being forced there. The theory goes, if he’s too popular for the Republicans to oust, the Democratic base will kill him.
On the other hand, a less likable president can have very big advantages. Imagine a candidate who everyone loves just as much as he does, but who has as much in common with the people as he does with the presidents he’d replace. You’ve just got someone with whom you’re off the hook.
So suppose Donald Trump were to be elected. Obama would have a very big advantage. What could he do with it?
Well, he could go looking for somebody like himself. He could appoint a Cabinet that reflected the country’s ethnic, racial and religious make-up. And he could take advantage of the broad latitude that presidents have when filling senior posts: the president has fewer than 10 years to appoint, and he needs some people to help him navigate the political minefield of legislating, so he needs all the help he can get.
We could settle that well within the first week. Obama could appoint Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general and climate change denier, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. And he could appoint his longtime ally Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, as the director of the new Department of the Interior. Or maybe a new FEMA director: Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Or Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the Supreme Court, as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Don’t worry, Trump wouldn’t hire this pick.) Or Julia Morgan, the architect of Yosemite, as head of the National Park Service. Or Wilson University President Nellie Mae Smith as secretary of Commerce.
The president would have a lot of room to pick from among these men and women of accomplishment. And Hillary Clinton is not about to move to that Cabinet — her public profile and her noxious public personality both intimidate Obama, as do Hillary’s staff. (A-Rod would probably make it.)
Obama would face an entirely different challenge if the Democrats took back the Senate in November. He would be able to fill his Cabinet without Senate approval, but Senate Republicans would enjoy significant leverage over his next secretaries, if that’s what they choose to call them.