Which first year?

August 11, 2016 Saladin Ambar
Reagan Presidential Library

In weighing Abraham Lincoln’s tumultuous first year in office, Gary Gallagher in his essay, The Worst First Year, briskly moves through the critical events that Lincoln faced with unique skill, resolve, and decisiveness. Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the Union and the idea of republican government. That this priority ultimately led him to adopt emancipation as national policy is one of the great stories (and ironies) of American political history. First years matter enormously for presidents, oftentimes in ways that are beyond immediate understanding.

But which first years?

For Lincoln, his first year in office can be said to have begun well before he took the oath of office on March 4, 1861. Beginning on December 20, 1861, seven southern states seceded from the Union, setting in motion Lincoln’s directives as party leader, commander-in-chief, and head of the government, well before he ever set foot in the White House. Lincoln’s first year proves, as is more often the case than we might expect, that a president’s first year might begin before she or he ever takes office.

In thinking of presidential first years, we’d do well as scholars and students of American history to think rather in terms of transitions. The presidential transition period is really when the clock begins ticking. For Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, the transitional period was a matter of minutes. When Eleanor Roosevelt and Kenny O’Donnell brought both men the news of the president’s death respectively, the normal transitional period of three months collapsed to one of seconds.

Why does this matter? Because all presidents are expected in the modern era to come into the office with not only a legislative agenda, but a roster full of prospective appointees, both big and small; they are likewise expected to be fully informed of and prepared to address any number of national security concerns. Their staffs are to be in place to help direct the Washington bureaucracy, all the while being expected to know the inside players of the House and Senate, and what motivates them. In short, if the president is waiting to be sworn in to begin to tackle the nation’s problems, then she is in for a rude awakening.

Take the case of two governors. When Jimmy Carter took the presidential oath in January 1977, he was a relative neophyte to national politics and had little to no Washington connections. What’s more, by almost all accounts, Carter had a personal disdain for Washington—one that set him at odds with members of his own party, whom he frequently kept at arm’s length. Part of Carter’s troubles owed to his experience as governor of Georgia, a relatively small state with limited executive powers. He thought he could “go over the heads of Congress” as he had done back home. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, was unimpressed, to say the least.

Conversely, Ronald Reagan worked quite well with O’Neill having had a similar experience in California working with his Democratic opposition leader Jesse Unruh. Reagan was from a big, boisterous, and historically progressive state, and he knew the key to getting things done was negotiation and compromise. He did so in California—and that was to be the case in Washington. Carter’s efforts in his first year weighed him down while Reagan’s buoyed him. Much of the reason why goes to the lessons the Reagan transition team learned from Carter’s failures. Bill Clinton faced similar difficulties as a small state governor with little sense of how Washington worked. He proved to be a quick study, however, but only after a very rocky first year.

Of course, it helps to succeed a president from one’s own party. George H.W. Bush’s transition was far less chaotic than Carter’s in part, because he was coming in from the Reagan White House as its vice president. And like Reagan, whom history forgets had cultivated years of relationships with inside Washington people from his days in Hollywood, Bush was the consummate D.C. insider. It helped. Carter never grew comfortable in that political milieu–perhaps to his credit as a man, but to his discredit as an effective political leader.

Suffice it to say, the next president’s first year is already underway. Should Hillary Clinton win in November, odds are she’d be fairly likely to have a smooth transition, one all the more likely to shape a good first year as president. There are no guarantees in politics, but one can only imagine President Donald J. Trump’s difficulties during his first year. Americans love outsiders, and we’ve been electing them by the bunch lately—Carter-Reagan-Clinton-George W. Bush-Obama. Only George H.W. Bush and Hillary Clinton would fit the bill as true insiders (a reason why Bush 43’s cabinet was so top-heavy in Washington experience–thanks, Dad!). But woe unto the outsider who is not prepared.

Perhaps the most important thing to weigh is the last one here: temperament. A president must enter office knowledgeable, steady, and with a curiosity to learn and grow. Barack Obama had little to no Washington experience, and he was faced with a set of severe crises at the outset. But what he did have was a sound temperament, intelligence, and a rich well of intellectual curiosity to draw from.

Those traits—a profound understanding of the Constitution, a lively mind, and a good deal of patience—why, those were the things Lincoln had. First year presidents better have those traits if they want to be effective. Lincoln had been speaking about and thinking about the founding, the Constitution, and slavery for decades—at least since 1838 and his famous Lyceum Address. If the president is a newcomer to Washington, at least she mustn’t be a newcomer to the world of history and big ideas. It also helps to have some humility.

After all, the worst presidential first years will lead to no second terms. And that first year may be well underway by the time you hold up your right hand on a cold January morning.

You’d better count on it.

Saladin Ambar is Associate Professor and Chair in the department of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is a 2008 graduate of Rutgers University's PhD program in political science and a 2007-2008 Miller Center National Fellow. Dr. Ambar's latest book, American Cicero: Mario Cuomo and the Defense of Liberalism in America, will be released in June 2017 by Oxford University Press.