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Published: Monday, 1/5/2009

So why would anybody want to be president?

BACK IN 2006, President Bush declared that he, and no one else, was "the decider." He was right, of course. Every president is the ultimate decider. But the fact that he felt compelled to say so was interpreted by many, and rightly so, as one more manifestation of the man's egocentric, almost manic, obsession with charting his own course - my way or the highway.

Yes, as the President also famously said on another occasion, "you're either with us or you're against us."

It reminds me of a small sign I used to keep in my desk in the editorial offices of The Blade: "Everybody is entitled to my opinion." Though we were in the opinion business, to me the little placard was intended as a joke.

To George W. Bush, it seems to be a mantra that helps define him.

We'll let the psychologists figure out if all this was simply one son's attempts to prove his manhood and perhaps superiority to his father, a compulsion to finish what Dad started, a determination to win two terms compared to the old man's one.

On the latter point, George W. Bush's two election victories and eight years as our nation's 43rd president must be attributed in part to his own good fortune. He lost the popular vote in 2000 by more than half a million votes but won the election that ultimately mattered most - the Supreme Court's - by one vote. The court, you might say, was "the decider."

Four years later, he faced an opponent ambushed by the so-called "Swift Boat" veterans, who managed to turn John Kerry's military service into a liability, even though Mr. Bush's "war record" was marked not by what he did but what he didn't do as a part-time Guardsman.

With just two weeks left in President Bush's second term, it is no surprise that millions of Americans are weary of it all. Eight years is a long time to serve as the most powerful leader in the world.

Policies grow stale, enemies are made, constituent groups feel aggrieved. It was so with Bill Clinton, and it is so with George Bush.

Could Ronald Reagan have won a third term had there been no constitutional provision against it?

Perhaps, though his mental condition, which many believe began to deteriorate late in his second term, might have made that problematic.

The point is that eight years is about all that most Americans want from their president. It is a feeling intensified this time, given Mr. Bush's historically low approval ratings.

So it is perfectly natural, and healthy for the nation, to hope and assume that things will get better.

One way Barack Obama could make that happen, and I'm borrowing a phrase here he may already regret, is to "spread the wealth," at least when it comes to decision-making.

He has assembled an administration team that is impressive not just for its intellect and experience but for its diversity and, let us hope, for a collective willingness to tell the Boss what they think. When he is wrong, as he will be, they must tell him.

Does anybody believe that Hillary Clinton, soon to be secretary of state, will meekly sit still if she feels the president is making a strategic blunder? Joe Biden, about to be vice president, has far more savvy on the international stage than Mr. Obama, and he will not be timid about sharing his expertise.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who withdrew yesterday as Mr. Obama's nominee for secretary of commerce, is no shrinking violet either. One of the nation's most influential Hispanics, he will serve the aministration in some capcity if he is cleared of wrongdoing in the awarding of a transportation contract in New Mexico.

We can write off as campaign rhetoric some of the criticism all three leveled at Mr. Obama when they were running for the same prize.

But not all of it. They truly are stronger in certain areas than Mr. Obama is, and it is to his credit that he wants them around him in Washington.

In fact, he made a point of noting their philosophical independence when he announced their nominations.

"I assembled this team because I'm a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions," he said. "I think that's how the best decisions are made."

There is no room for "group-think" in the White House if it is the product of unchallenged arrogance and resistance at the top to considering another option. We've had enough of that to last us for a while.

Presidents have not been shy about firing cabinet appointees, department heads, and military leaders over policy differences, but Mr. Obama would be well advised to cut his team some slack when they tell him he might want to consider an alternative view.

And if Mr. Obama truly wants to change Washington, he should drastically cut the number of patronage jobs a new president typically hands out to those who helped him get elected.

He's already named Paul Volcker, long a foe of patronage in the federal government, as chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Maybe Mr. Volcker can help the new president pull the plug on patronage. I won't hold my breath.

It has been more than two months since the election. Many in America believe the gap between Election Day and Inauguration Day is just too long. It's an argument I understand - to a point. Americans voted decisively for change but have to wait until the new year to get it.

Shortening the ridiculously long election season itself is a good idea. But 10 weeks of preparation time for a new administration sounds about right.

It's more important that the new president make the right choices, even though his soon-to-depart predecessor, like every president enjoying his last holiday season in the White House, is the lamest of ducks.

Every new presidential administration is unique. Sort of like snow flakes - no two alike. Style has much to do with it. President Bush is a son of the South whose fractured syntax is legendary. President-elect Obama is more cerebral, a guy who admits he prefers Dijon on his cheeseburgers.

However, given the challenges that await, substance still matters most. Team Obama still has to deliver. The array of problems facing the new president - you can add renewed violence in the Middle East - is daunting and warrants dusting off the old question: Why would anybody want the job?

Barack Obama wants it. And like our 43rd president, our 44th will be the decider.

But it appears he is willing to accept the advice and counsel of those with whom he will share the burden.

That's a good start - and a refreshing change.



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