Running for president is an act of colossal ego. Without a healthy dose of self-belief no candidate could survive the brutal process of a national campaign, and that’s doubly true this year.
But Wednesday, regardless of the outcome of this always nasty, angry campaign, the run for the office phase will be over. The winner will have to focus on the next phase: preparing to be president, and that requires intense humility. No matter who wins, no matter what his or her background, the vastness of the job ahead is awe-inspiring.
“This is still the most powerful office on Earth,” said South Carolina native Tucker Eskew, who served in the administration of George W. Bush. “The decisions they will make will matter. The mistakes they may make can be existential. No one should laugh off the awfulness of this process. But no one should forget that once there’s a winner, that winner has real power. They don’t listen to the advice of others at some substantial risk.”
In past transitions, South Carolinians have played important roles in this process. Eskew, today a political communications strategist in Washington, helped with Bush’s transition.
Donald Fowler, 81, a political scientist who’s been a professor at the University of South Carolina and The Citadel and is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, helped prepare Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to take office.
Eskew and Fowler agreed to share their insights on the process, which both agreed is central to the success of a presidency, even if it seems out of step with what it takes to reach that office. It’s important to remember that the clock is ticking the whole time: The transition ends Jan. 20, when the new president takes the oath of office and President Barack Obama leaves the White House.
Fowler explained: “The really good ones, they admit they need to learn and reach out for help. Being president is the world’s toughest job.”
There are striking differences between the candidates in this, of course. Hillary Clinton has lived in the White House as first lady, and served in government as a senator from New York and a presidential Cabinet member as the secretary of state. Clinton is thought to know fairly well what’s expected, though the task of actually becoming a president is still thought to be a monumental challenge.
Donald Trump would be the first president elected since Dwight D. Eisenhower without any political background. Previous U.S. presidents without political backgrounds have been military generals: Eisenhower in World War II and Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. Trump’s background has been in business, which both experts believe represents a unique challenge in his preparation should he win.
For starters, the scope of the job is large. It doesn’t matter whether a candidate devoted time to agricultural policy or environmental policy or educational policy on the campaign trail. Once they are in the office, they are in charge of all of these and more.
And, as Eskew said, “Presidents only make tough calls. The easy decisions will be taken care of before they reach that desk.”
The first task facing the winner is widely agreed to be reaching out to the losing side. Given the level of anger in this campaign, it’s equally important this year that the loser should reach out to the winner. It’s sadly possible, given a campaign in which the candidates cast each other as criminal and pervert, that this won’t happen.
Beyond that, the winner has to assemble a presidential Cabinet, meaning 15 people to run departments from State to Treasury to Homeland Security. There’s also the staff, meaning another 40 high-profile managers and advisers.
“Every transition has to be about policy, personnel and process,” Eskew said. “I’m afraid the process will lose out this time.”
Fowler said there were about 15 to 25 people around Washington who could help in this transition. These people come from both parties, and he suggested that it’s a good idea to listen to folks from both sides. Campaigns promote clearly defining differences.
“If you get somebody going into that office thinking they know everything, they will make incredible mistakes,” Fowler said. “The best presidents are those who go into this process humble enough to listen to those with experience.”
He likened it to a talented but young quarterback arriving at a top football program. If he tries to go it alone, he probably fails, or at least he struggles. If instead he listens to his coaches and those who have walked the same path before him, he can figure it out.
“The thing that’s unique about being president is that you are called upon to make incredible decisions and there is no alternative to you making those decisions,” he said.
Successful presidencies require searching for common ground. In fact, part of the transition is that what had been a national campaign becomes a similarly high-stakes campaign but within a very small group of people: convincing Congress to buy in on your vision.
Eskew helped Bush into office after the closest vote in U.S. history. The winner wasn’t officially known until the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a mandatory vote recount in Florida more than a month after the Nov. 7 election. As Eskew said, that condensed their preparation schedule.
Even so, he said: “This time, we’re talking about much deeper divisions, much greater unhappiness. The transition will have problems, writ large, regardless of how the vote goes.”