Despite all the effort the major candidates have put into campaigning during the past couple of years, we really don’t know much about what any of them would actually do if elected.
Sometime in the next few weeks, the Democratic Party will choose a candidate. After that, voters will have something less than four months to decide on a new president. Despite all the effort the major candidates have put into campaigning during the past couple of years, we really don’t know much about what any of them would actually do if elected. The national debt, the Iraq war, immigration, soaring energy and health care costs, a stagnant economy -- these are the major issues of the day. When asked, the current candidates each imply that he or she has a plan to solve them all. In fact, the next administration couldn’t possibly fix all the nation’s woes. But it might be able to make serious progress on a few of them if it limited its promises and the scope of its commitment. History affords us a nice example of a president who took office with just a few goals in mind and left having accomplished all of them. James K. Polk isn’t a president who comes to mind when you think of successful chief executives, but historians generally rate him pretty high. He won his party’s nomination exactly 164 years ago this week. Polk was a different breed of animal than any of his predecessors, in part because he was the first president to act like a CEO. He began his term in office by declaring that he’d serve only four years. He worked 52 weeks a year in an era when Washington, D.C., routinely emptied out every summer due to the heat and annual cholera epidemic. He also made his cabinet ministers agree to do the same. A micromanager, he held twice-weekly cabinet meetings solely so he could monitor the government departments. Polk came to the presidency just as Congress was approving the annexation of Texas. He sought to acquire additional land from Mexico and, to get it, he stationed troops on disputed soil at the Rio Grande and in key areas of California. He personally ordered each commander to seize all the territory he could as soon as the inevitable hostilities commenced. Once U.S. forces overwhelmed the Mexican armies, Polk was in excellent position to absorb the maximum territory, despite the fact that there was no prior valid American claim to the Southwest. Oregon in 1844 extended from northern California to southern Alaska. Both the U.S. and Great Britain had claims to the entire parcel dating back to the Revolutionary War. Polk bluffed the British into believing he was willing to go to war to acquire it all. Instead, he cheerfully negotiated a settlement that gave him the southern half of it. Polk’s mentor, Andrew Jackson, left a big hole in the U.S. economy by killing off the U.S. Bank, a private entity that had grown too politically powerful to suit him. But the federal government needed a banking system of some kind to conduct business. Polk resolved to establish an independent treasury, and he did. The U.S. tariff is the tax the federal government levies on imported goods. It was a source of contention in those days that split the North and the South almost as decisively as the issue of slavery. Northern industrial interests preferred high tariffs, because U.S. manufactured goods became relatively cheap. Southern plantation owners hated high tariffs because other nations raised their tariffs in retaliation, meaning Southern grain and cotton crops were priced out of some world markets. Polk, a Southerner, strong-armed Congress into lowering tariffs. Polk didn’t solve all the nation’s problems. Slavery, sectionalism and setting up the governmental structures for California and New Mexico were left for his successors. But when he took office, he announced his intentions: to settle the Oregon border, acquire New Mexico and California, lower the federal tariff and establish the U.S. Treasury. He had to start a war with Mexico while simultaneously avoiding one with Great Britain. He also had to browbeat a Congress that was split on the tariff issue and indifferent to establishing a Treasury. He did all these things in four years, by working night and day -- then he went home to Tennessee, where he died, probably of exhaustion, within two months. But he did what he said he would and added about 38 percent to the size of the nation. When he came into office, the Mississippi River was the U.S. frontier; when he left, it was the center of the nation. It’s hard to understand why he hasn’t been treated better by history. Perhaps it was because he was a humorless drudge. (Davy Crockett, a contemporary Tennessee politician, claimed Polk was debilitated because of his insistence on using water as a beverage.) Maybe the fact that he and his wife had no children to carry on his name (although he came from a large family: his grandfather, Ezekiel Polk, spawned 14 children, who produced 92 children of their own; these eventually produced 307 great-grandchildren.) The next president would serve us and himself well if he followed Polk’s example: choose a few problems and work night and day to solve them. Contact the publisher at email@example.com.