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What’s luck got to do with it?

Presidential legacies, including Obama’s, require hard work with a dash of serendipity

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / June 8, 2010

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As a military commander and politician, Napoleon Bonaparte worshipped audacity. “Who dares, wins’’ was one his favorite maxims: “He who hesitates is lost.’’ Napoleon also believed in luck. In a famous exchange, he was once asked what quality he most prized in his generals. His answer: “Just one — that they be lucky.’’

Which leads me to wonder: Is President Obama unlucky?

Let’s state the obvious. The kind of men who aspire to and win the presidency don’t spend a lot of time stroking rabbit’s feet or hunting for four-leaf clovers. They work hard every day to make their own luck. Another caveat: There is a difference between being unlucky and being the victim of a tragedy. I would never suggest that John Kennedy was merely unlucky to have been assassinated. Although, as a naval officer who often thrust himself into harm’s way, he was darned lucky to have survived World War II.

Who is an example of an unlucky president? Jimmy Carter would be a classic. The OPEC oil cartel decided to flex its muscles on his watch, with devastating economic consequences for the United States. Then Iranian revolutionaries seized and held the American Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, through the end of his presidency. Carter did the right thing, ordering up a bold rescue mission that failed because of capricious desert sandstorms. Bad luck, indeed.

What constitutes presidential luck? For one thing, facing difficulties that prove to be surmountable, no matter how daunting they initially appear. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt stood up to crippling disasters, which they eventually overcame through diligence, patience, and a dash of luck.

Lincoln biographer and Civil War historian James McPherson notes that during a long presidency “there will be both kinds of luck, good and bad. That was certainly true of Lincoln. His fortune had a lot to do with success or failure on the battlefield, over which he didn’t have much direct control. The loss at Fredericksburg created a crisis in the cabinet, and then Sherman’s capture of Atlanta turned things around. Luck had a lot to do with it.’’

Edmund Morris, biographer of both Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, thinks that “luck is almost always a consequence of positive attitude and the desire to succeed. Even presidents who have what looks like bad luck, like FDR in 1933, almost always end up successful if they can maintain their attitude and optimism.’’ Morris told me that Teddy Roosevelt’s energy and “constant benign good will’’ gave rise to the phrase “Roosevelt luck,’’ which is indeed in the history books. In 1910, The New York Times reported an event in which Roosevelt upstaged his successor, William Howard Taft, under the headline “More Roosevelt Luck.’’ “Who can hope to compete with such a lucky man?’’ the Times asked.

What about Obama? For the record, he does not disdain luck. During the presidential campaign he carried an ever-changing assortment of lucky charms proffered by well-wishing voters: a lucky subway token; a Madonna pendant, a Hindu charm, and other tiny totems. I wonder if they accompanied him to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., because once he moved in, his luck started to wear thin.

Obama assumed the presidency in the thick of an economic meltdown that threatened to bankrupt the government, and he even inherited its controversial “solution’’ — the TARP bailouts — from his predecessor. The George Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not exactly welcome gifts, although Obama has foolishly chosen to adopt the Afghanistan adventure as his own. Somehow the Gulf Coast oil spill, which almost meets the legal test of an “act of God’’ — an event outside of human control — has become his personal political problem. It is like the Tehran hostage crisis, but worse. The oil spill festers every day, but there are no Sea Stallion helicopters or special ops teams to dispatch on a rescue mission.

Morris has met Obama and thinks he will be one of the lucky ones. “He has the intellectual powers to see that dreadful situations can be transcended, rather than assume that dreadful conditions must necessarily prevail.’’

I am not so sure. Luck will out over an eight-year presidency, I think; both Reagan and Bill Clinton caught the wave of an economic upturn that buoyed their fortunes. Maybe Obama won’t get that chance.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.