It is considered the toughest job on the planet: being President of the United States. Often, they come into office with decades of experience in politics, business, or both; however, after one or two terms, they leave far wiser than they arrived. In 1989, President Ronald Reagan began the tradition of leaving a handwritten letter to his successor. The letter was placed in a drawer of the Resolute Desk located in the Oval Office. The first letter was lighthearted and informal but over time, the letters grew more serious, offering encouragement and specific advice. So what sort of advice or insight does an outgoing President give to an incoming President? Fortunately, you don’t have to run for office, raise more than $2 billion, and attend hundreds of politic rallies to win a Presidential election to find out. Over the years, all of these private letters have been made public. Below are the personal letters that outgoing Presidents have left for their successors.
On January 20, 1989 President Ronald Reagan left the first personal letter for incoming President George H.W. Bush. Since President Reagan was known for his sense of humor and folksy style, he wanted his letter to be lighthearted. Accordingly, he chose stationery that featured the idiom “Don’t let the turkeys get you down” with an illustration of an elephant surrounded by turkeys. Reagan wrote:
You’ll have moments when you want to use this particular stationery. Well go to it.
George I treasure the memorys [sic] we share and wish you all the very best. You’ll be in my prayers. God Bless You & Barbara. I’ll miss our Thursday lunches.
President Bush served only one term. So on January 20, 1993, President Bush wrote the following letter to incoming President Bill Clinton:
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good luck —
Eight years later, on January 20, 2001, President Clinton wrote a letter to incoming President George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush’s son. Clinton wrote:
Today you embark on the greatest venture, with the greatest honor, that can come to an American citizen.
Like me, you are especially fortunate to lead our country in a time of profound and largely positive change, when old questions, not just about the role of government, but about the very nature of our nation, must be answered anew.
You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are President of all of us. I salute you and wish you success and much happiness.
The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible.
My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed.
Another eight years passed. President Bush wrote the following letter to incoming President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009:
Congratulations on becoming our President. You have just begun a fantastic chapter in your life.
Very few have had the honor of knowing the responsibility you now feel. Very few know the excitement of the moment and the challenges you will face.
There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your ‘friends’ will disappoint you. But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me. No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead.
God bless you.
On January 17, 2009, after a tumultuous and divisive election with a result that even surprised the winning candidate, President Obama left a handwritten letter for incoming President Donald Trump. Unlike the previous letters, the salutation was more formal and the length of the letter was substantially longer. In hindsight, one of the most notable lines is this one: “[It’s] up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.” Here is the complete letter that President Obama wrote:
“Dear Mr. President,
Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure.
This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years.
First, we’ve both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s up to us to do everything we can (to) build more ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard.
Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.
Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions – like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties – that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.
And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They’ll get you through the inevitable rough patches.
Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can.
Good luck and Godspeed,
On January 20, 2020, outgoing President Trump broke tradition by not attending President Joe Biden’s inauguration, but he decided to continue the tradition of the personal letter, probably because he truly treasured the letter that President Obama wrote to him four year ago. As of this writing, we don’t know what he wrote. When reporters asked President Biden about the contents of the letter, Biden graciously replied, “The president wrote a very generous letter. Because it was private, I will not talk about it until I talk to him, but it was generous.”
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