October 10th, 2012
06:20 PM ET

Letters to the President #1360: 'The incumbent calm'

Reporter's Note: I write to President Obama all the time. Or at least every day.

Dear Mr. President,

If I were to write a book about writing, it would be a pretty slim volume. Learning to write well is a lifelong process, and despite three decades in journalism, I feel as if I am just now getting the hang of it.

I’ve met great writers, of course. Their sentences, paragraphs, and stories are wondrous. They perform a peculiar alchemy with language that turns phrases into poetry. It is art. If I live long enough, and work hard enough, perhaps I’ll become better at this craft, but I doubt that I will ever grace their company as anything more than a journeyman.

Simply put, getting good at anything takes time, and some things take longer than others.

I mention it, because I wonder if you’re having any thoughts like that right now? I can imagine few jobs for which the applicants are routinely so under-qualified as the presidency. No one is ready for it. You, like every soul who has taken the job, seemed overwhelmed by it at the start; oddly bold and hesitant all at once, ready to seize the largest challenge and yet unsure where to grab hold.

Now, time has passed, and you are much better. I’m not talking about whether I like your policies. I’m just saying that you seem to have a firmer grasp of how to pursue your goals within the uniquely challenging world of Washington with all its customs and constraints. Instead of talking so much about changing the rules, you’re learning to play within them.

I imagine before anyone becomes president, he thinks he will have nearly limitless power. That is just not the case. On the job, each president realizes that there are many limits. Presidents, like writers, must learn that greatness comes from restraint, control, and adherence to the rules.

And in terms of campaigning for re-election, I’ve often thought it can be the unrecognized advantage of incumbents. Sure, newcomers can thrash about, throwing accusations, and yelling at the heavens in their quest for votes. But the power of a sitting president is emphasized most, I think, when he doesn’t behave that way; but rather when he quietly, firmly, and with dignity makes it clear he truly knows the boundaries of the job and how to get things done within those limits.

Just a few thoughts for a Wednesday. Hope all is well.


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