Between now and the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, there will be many predictions of what the next four years will bring. Most of those will be wrong. As it always does, the fate of the administration will hinge on things that no one can predict.
The future is full of unknowns. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson campaigned for president on domestic issues, and his 1913 inaugural address did not even mention the words “war” or “military.” When he delivered that speech, he surely had never heard of the man Gavrilo Princip. In 1914, this obscure young Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, triggering a chain of events that would result in World War I.
Closer to our own time, Jimmy Carter was another president whose campaign had a domestic emphasis. In 1976, he made brief remarks questioning the scope of arms sales to Iran, but otherwise had little to say about that country.
During his first year as president, he said: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Within a couple of years, that island of stability had become a caldron of chaos. Revolutionaries deposed the shah and seized American hostages, launching a crisis that would become an obsession for the United States and a political disaster for Mr. Carter.
Around the same time, another country supplied another shock. Neither Carter nor Gerald Ford had talked about Afghanistan during their 1976 contest. In fact, “Afghanistanism” was a slang term for excessive concern with unimportant parts of the world.
In December 1979, Afghanistan suddenly became important when the Soviet Union invaded. Carter, who had once spoken of an “inordinate fear of communism,” said that the invasion “has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”
CIA-backed rebels eventually pushed the Soviets out, and Afghanistan again receded from the American mind. In the Bush-Gore debates of 2000, the name of the country never came up. Even more striking in hindsight is that the issue of terrorism got only fleeting attention from the candidates. Instead of arguing about who would get tougher against our enemies, candidate George W. Bush said – and Vice President Al Gore agreed – that the US should be a strong but “humble nation.”
Everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001. The war on terror replaced compassionate conservatism as Mr. Bush’s priority, and the “humble nation” talk vanished.
The economy can move in unpredictable ways, too. During the 1990s, technological innovation fostered an economic boom, and so the federal deficit came down faster than Bill Clinton could have hoped when he took office in 1993. Sixteen years later, President Obama knew right at the start that the economy was in crisis. Nevertheless, his transition team projected that unemployment would drop below 6 percent by late 2012. Needless to say, the recovery has been slower than the forecasters had predicted.
The unexpected may come from within. Abraham Lincoln, who had never run anything larger than his little law office before becoming president, must have seemed like an amateur next to the president of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis, a graduate of West Point, had served as a US senator, a general, and US secretary of War. Lincoln’s own secretary of State offered to take over some responsibilities from the seemingly overmatched chief executive. It took the Civil War to reveal Lincoln’s greatness.
Sometimes, the revelations occur in the second term. Mr. Clinton already had a reputation as a womanizer, but the Lewinsky affair was something else entirely. Few imagined that he would be so reckless as to have relations with a subordinate. And no one could have foreseen the resilience and political cunning with which he survived a scandal that would have destroyed other presidents.
The winner of the 2012 election will face foreign and domestic jolts. He may even find surprises in his own soul. So on Jan. 20, as he puts his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office, he should glance down at Ecclesiastes 8:7: “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?”