President Matthew Santos entered the Oval Office and sighed. Winters in Washington DC were bitterly cold, but the sun glistening on the frost of the South Lawn made for a pleasant backdrop to inauguration day. He had very little still to do before he vacated the building for the last time as the leader of the free world, but one task in particular weighed heavily on his mind. The traditional note left from one President to the next.
The same eight years had passed for President Santos as for President Bartlet, but Santos wondered how his predecessor had coped with the exhaustion he now experienced. The youth and vigour that had been a feature of Santos’s first presidential campaign had evaporated by the time his re-election campaign was over, and now he felt utterly drained.
“Who knew that the President of the United States could feel so powerless?” He mused to the portrait of Abraham Lincoln that hung opposite the Resolute desk.
He thought back to the note President Bartlet had left for him. Concise, optimistic, and encouraging. But the country’s mood had shifted dramatically since, and the President-Elect would be inheriting a nation which felt divided more than ever.
The first 100 days of his presidency had contained all of of the achievements he would be most remembered for. After Governor Baker had been confirmed to the Vice-Presidency by Congress, he had tried to reform the role of lobbyists, but without the support of the Speaker of the House. On that issue he had won, but only with the help of some procedural tricks in the Senate.
Next, the cornerstone of Santos’s domestic policy was introduced; education reform. Where Baker’s confirmation was a (relatively) simple process, reforming the American education system was a much greater challenge. Democrats opposed ending teacher tenure, Republicans likewise disagreed over extending the school year and increasing funding. A compromise bill was passed, but only after expending all of his remaining political capital. At the time he had been arrogant enough not to care, but since the reforms weren’t in full force before the his re-election campaign kicked off, it had made running for a second term much more difficult.
The re-election campaign had taken over the primary focus of the administration, to the detriment of governing. That had always been the case to an extent, but Washington had used the situation as an excuse to run down the clock and hold up confirmation of his nominee for the Supreme Court, hoping for a change in the White House. It was on the strength of his handling of the continuing situation in Kazakhstan that he had won re-election, rather than his domestic achievements.
The second term was full of frustrations. Although his Supreme Court nominee had finally been confirmed, lobbying had returned to its usual levels, now that everyone had figured out how to skirt the letter of the law. Education was seeing changes start to be implemented, but whether they would be successful or not would be a question that could only be answered a generation later. The administration had started haemorrhaging staff; Josh Lyman had quit after the re-election campaign, burned out. Sam Seaborn had returned to the private sector, deciding he could do more good there than within the administration. That loss had hurt, not only because Sam was a great asset, but because of the vote of no confidence that it implied.
Santos turned his attention back to the blank piece of paper on his desk. The shortcomings of his own administration were well documented in the press, so it would be of little help to a new President to revisit them.
Although at this point Santos was not hugely popular, he had still been a presence on the campaign trail. His speeches tended to focus on issues, rather than the candidates, usually (much to Santos’s chagrin) on the subject of race. He had never wanted to be the minority candidate, the brown candidate, but was content to do what was asked of him in order to ensure a Democrat retained the White House. He had hoped that seeing a Latino man as President would have been another step on the journey to equality, but that was not to be. What this election was finally revealing was that racism in America was widespread, even rampant.
What was more disturbing to him was the way that the issue had been whipped up during the campaign. The Republican primary season had seen the establishment embarrassed by an outsider taking the nomination with little realistic opposition. The Republicans had nominated Southern businessman Daniel Ross, whose candidacy seemed to defy all conventional wisdom. He had run with barely a single coherent policy to offer, promising to restore America’s place as the only world superpower. What at first had been considered an exercise in vanity had turned into a grass-roots movement as the disenfranchised working class of America had connected with him rather than the career politicians running against him.
On the Democratic side, the process had been smooth. There had quickly been a consensus around Harriet Newton, a former Governor and three-term Senator from Maine. She was eminently qualified, but uninspiring. Santos had little doubt that she would make an excellent President, but on a national stage she lacked excitement. Her policy announcements were drowned out by Ross’s frequent rants. Newton was a victim of cable news, Santos thought. Being smart, eloquent and qualified didn’t make for good television. Being outspoken and offensive certainly ensured that you’d be on the news.
Of course there was always the subject of her gender, which drew more conversation than any policy she put forward. Santos had found it difficult to accept that it was even up for discussion that a woman might not be suitable for the highest job in the land, based solely on her gender. But Ross’s campaign around “traditional American values” took every opportunity to suggest that Newton’s place was (at most) to be running a home, but certainly not a country. It was obvious that much of the country had decided that “all men are created equal” only applied to the male half of the population.
Santos remembered that President Roosevelt had once said, ’The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us’. It felt like that was the biggest lesson the new President was going to have to try to impart on the population.
The new President had to find a way to re-unite the country and restore their trust in government. The election process had shown, despite the result, that much of the country did not feel that the government represented them. That feeling would not be going away with a President of one party, and a Congress of the other.
Santos finally began writing. He wrote about the role of the government and the need to convince people that it was an institution that could work for them again. There were certain things, he argued, that a government is uniquely suited to provide. The Constitution itself listed them in it’s preamble;
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
He turned to the election’s most contentious point, the point most personal to him; immigration. There was a time when America really did accept what the poet Emma Lazarus had called “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and given them a new home. Now it felt like there were so many conditions related to obtaining residency in the United States that the poem could be entirely inverted. He hoped that the new President would be able to restore America’s pride as an example to the world of inclusiveness and diversity.
Finally he wrote about the feeling with which he had started his own campaign for the Presidency; hope. It would be a difficult task to bring the people back to feeling invested in the government, but there was always hope. That remained the key to the American experiment. The American people are, by their nature, optimistic. The founding of the country itself was an exercise in optimism and hope – that they could do better for themselves as a self-governing people, free of British rule. If they could find a way back to that feeling of optimism, the country could keep moving forward.
His Executive Secretary Ronna Beckman knocked on the door of the office and entered.
“Mr President good morning”.
“Good morning Ronna”.
“I have the President-Elect for you on line one”.
“Thank you Ronna.”
He waited until she closed the door to pick up the handset.