You won! But now for the hard part

Memo to the new president: In Washington, Mary Dejevsky offers some advice to the next man in the White House - dump the cronies, pick a Big Cause... and have a long chat with Bill Clinton
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The Independent US

So you made it. Congratulations. Even if you do nothing of note in the next four - or even eight - years, your place in history is already secure as the president who owed his elevation as much to the law courts as to the voters.

So you made it. Congratulations. Even if you do nothing of note in the next four - or even eight - years, your place in history is already secure as the president who owed his elevation as much to the law courts as to the voters.

Would you really wish what you have been through in the past weeks on your worst enemy? Even on the man you have just defeated, the man who could not believe he had lost, who hung on in there matching your every public relations gambit, every new lawsuit with one of his own?

The protracted election campaign is one thing: you pace yourself for the long run and then for the final sprint. But then to have to summon new energy for a sudden-death play-off where you contest even the rules. Now that is torment.

The quick resort to law was especially regrettable. Were it to set a precedent, it could risk upsetting those fabled checks and balances of the Constitution. Money has already distorted election campaigns; the last thing this country needs is the law encroaching on the count. Which is why you should drop whatever you had planned as your first executive order from the Oval Office and work to streamline the electoral process without further ado.

A few suggestions: if people are electing the President of the United States, it might not be too dictatorial to ask them to use the same design of ballot. Subsidising the purchase of new, standardised voting machines nationwide would hardly make a dent in the budget surplus. You can safely leave the fate of the electoral college to the experts; it gives them something to argue about and keeps them out of your hair.

Yes, I know that counties and states have their jealously guarded jurisdictions and might not take to such standardisation too well. But the drinking age across the country was raised by the simple stratagem of making federal road subsidies conditional on the law change. Maybe you should go the whole hog and try for internet voting - was it you who wore the PalmPilot on his belt to show your tech-man credentials?

Dwelling on the election may seem unduly retrospective, but it is not every day that Americans are so politically involved, so receptive to change. Invite their most ingenious ideas, announce a competition, you never know what it might turn up. It could also take people's minds off the other unpleasant shock of your election, after the time it took: the fact that exactly half the country - minus a couple of hundred thousand - did not actually want you as their president at all.

You are already being bombarded with advice about going easy on the initiatives, about trimming your ambitions, about the urgent need for national "healing". It is true that the Congress you must work with is as divided as the country. But that is no reason to make matters worse with mealy-mouthed platitudes about unity. You have a chance to shape Congress more to your liking in two years' time. In the meantime, you must convince the voters that you have the backbone and drive to get something done - here's how.

Do not dilute the integrity of your Cabinet. You won, remember! Don't try too hard to be - the next buzzword - "bipartisan". You will win over doubters by the force of your arguments and by the appeal of your ideas, but above all by guile. Wasn't that how you won the White House in the end?

Take advice, by all means, there is plenty out there. Whole think-tank departments are working to save novice presidents from themselves in the weeks of "The Transition". One advantage of the shorter transition is that you will have less time to heed the clamour around you and might rely more on the transition professionals - perhaps the nearest thing in US government to a permanent and non-partisan civil service. There is experience there to be heeded.

Be firm with your friends and your staff: there will not be room for everyone in your administration. Warn them first about the vetting process: that will prune the ranks. It's not good for them, but it is potentially lethal for you, if you find out too late about unpaid taxes, undeclared dalliances, undocumented nannies, and all the other liabilities that a fractious Congress will uncover.

Don't march into Washington with an army of hometown patriots, intent on imposing your particular corner of the South on the nation's capital. You will understand soon enough that Washington is as Southern as you make it.

You have the social advantage of lineage, but you must break out of those posturing cliques that populate Washington. The capital is changing. There is a whole world of new tech and global awareness in the Silicon corridors of Virginia and Maryland. Pay it some attention - not many others have - and see how fast the old establishment comes a-courting.

Choose a big cause: if there was anything to be regretted about Clinton - except You Know What - it was that his first big cause, health reform, died young, and he never really adopted another. The extortionate health system is still there to be tackled (I dare you); as are school standards, de facto segregation and the untrammelled development of the countryside. Don't dismiss these as "left-liberal" missions: you talked about them in your campaign, remember? These are big causes only the President can take on: choose one.

And finally, give Middle East peace a rest.Your predecessor became a little obsessed with it. Starved of such lavish attention, the region might just start to settle down by itself. Don't travel more than necessary, at least at the start. Talk instead to people (not diplomats) who spend time abroad: businesspeople, students and returning expats. Solicit their views, and try to see the US as non-Americans see it. You might be surprised.

 

PS: Invite Bill Clinton back for a night in the Lincoln bedroom. He will appreciate the irony, and probably won't spend much time there at all. With any luck, he will talk into the night about what it is really like at the summit of world power in the 21st century. He is the only one who can tell you.

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