Why it’s still worth being president of the fractious United States

December 6, 2015
A man holds a sign reading "Obama Bin Lyin'" before a campaign rally with Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in Columbia, South Carolina January 11, 2012.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR2W5YS

A campaign rally with Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in Columbia, South Carolina, January 11, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Can any president govern the fractious, media-saturated United States? After all, one recent poll shows that Republicans even opposed Barack Obama’s policy on “clemency” for Thanksgiving turkeys.

Obama’s presidency has spawned a cottage industry of pundits wondering if the United States has simply become ungovernable. Newsweek and The Economist, Nobel laureate Gary Becker and federal judge Richard Posner, the Sydney Morning Herald and the UK Daily Mail have all identified the nation as hopelessly ungovernable. Some experts have compared the United States to a Latin American banana republic; one even ominously suggested links to Weimar Germany before the Nazi seizure of power. Last month, the New York Times headlined a column directed to the 2016 presidential contenders, ““Are You Sure You Want the Job?” In this context, then, it may be hard to believe that the American presidency is enjoying an era of unusual stability and success. But it is.

Consider the most basic marker of success: pure endurance. 43 men have held the nation’s highest office (we call Obama the 44th president, but tradition labels Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms, both number 22 and number 24). Assuming that Obama completes his second term, he will become only the 14th president to serve eight full years (and just the 13th to complete eight consecutive years). But that exclusive list includes four of the last five presidents (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama) and the last three in a row. Not since the Virginia dynasty during the Republic’s early years has the United States witnessed such a period of stability in presidential politics.

But recent presidents have not merely endured; in many cases, for better and for worse, they have prevailed. A generation ago, Reagan established new norms for presidential effectiveness. At a time when Richard Nixon’s resignation in disgrace and the one-term administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter cast doubt on the ability of any chief executive to overcome the fragmentation and parochialism of the American polity, Reagan pursued an ambitious agenda.

Through a combination of ideological leadership (Reagan became the first product of the modern conservative movement to enter the White House), skillful communication and flexible policymaking (despite his rhetorical opposition to deficit spending and taxation, Reagan ran large budget deficits and increased the payroll tax), Reagan shifted the American political spectrum to the right. In the process, a politician that many had regarded as a dangerous extremist became not only an icon for contemporary conservatives, but a beloved national father figure. “The fact is, what they called ‘radical’’ was really ‘right’,” Reagan said, reflecting on the transformation of his image during his eight years in Washington. “What they called ‘dangerous’ was just ‘desperately needed’.” Both the experts, who consistently place Reagan among the near great presidents, and the general public, much of which believes that Reagan belongs on Mount Rushmore, largely agree.

Bill Clinton enjoys a similarly soaring reputation. The most recent academic survey, last year’s presidential rankings by the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section places Clinton in the all-time top ten, ahead of Reagan and such luminaries as Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and James Madison. Like Reagan, Clinton entered the White House during an economic downturn and led the nation into recovery. But the 1990s boom that Clinton presided over produced far broader prosperity than the Reagan recovery and remarkable progress across a wide range of social indices: the lowest unemployment in 30 years, the lowest female unemployment in 40 years, the lowest Hispanic and African American unemployment and the lowest poverty rate for single mothers on record. Clinton also balanced the federal budget for the first time since 1969, ended the federal entitlement to welfare, and launched S-CHIP–the largest expansion of taxpayer-funded health insurance coverage for children since the 1965 creation of Medicaid. And he accomplished all that despite the distractions of a scandal that led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives and trial in the U.S. Senate.

George W. Bush has fared less well than his predecessors, and even his own father, in scholarly ratings and in public opinion polls. Privatization of Social Security, Bush 43’s most ambitious legislative initiative, floundered on Capitol Hill and his signature domestic achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act, has become widely unpopular. In foreign affairs, the global war on terror that Bush launched in the wake of 9/11 has never merited the “Mission Accomplished” banner the administration flew after the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The 2016 presidential candidates all portray the Iraq war as a failure. Even Hillary Clinton who voted in favor of the incursion in the Senate and George W. Bush’s own brother, Jeb.

Still, Bush’s administration challenges the dominant narrative of polarization and partisan gridlock. “W” delivered twice on his promise to cut federal taxes and successfully pushed several major bills through congress, including No Child Left Behind, the controversial USA Patriot Act, and prescription drug coverage under Medicare Part D. Even more important, he led the United States into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and aggressively prosecuted the war on terror. For better or worse, Bush successfully implemented much of his remarkably ambitious agenda.

With a little over a year remaining, Barack Obama’s presidency presents the sharpest disjunction between rhetoric and reality. With average approval ratings hovering below 50 percent, Obama provokes unprecedented ire among his political opponents. In one recent survey 33 percent of respondents named him the worst president since World War II (28 percent picked George W. Bush). At the same time, Obama has largely disappointed the progressives who energized his 2008 run for the White House. Even sympathetic observers see Obama as the victim of a dysfunctional Congress and polarized electorate that makes effective governance impossible.

Yet, whatever your assessment of his program, Obama has built an impressive record of accomplishment. Inheriting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and two stalemated foreign wars, the president has led both an economic recovery and a major reorientation of its relations with the wider world. In the process, he re-regulated Wall Street, saved the automobile industry, cut the federal deficit, and through the program that now bears his name, created a national health insurance system.

Like Reagan and Clinton before him, Obama has presided over broader and cultural shifts, such as the broad acceptance of gay marriage, protections for undocumented immigrants, and widespread adoption of smartphones, that have changed the face — and the faces — of the nation. And unlike many of his predecessors, he’s done it all without embarrassing personal scandals.

It’s time to stop whining about the state of American politics, or to pine for some imagined golden age of far-sighted, public-spirited leaders engaging in civil cooperation. Given the fragmentation of power in the federal system, the recent run of presidential success is as good as it gets. This may well be the golden age.

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“protections for undocumented immigrants”

An indirect manipulative way of saying driving down wages for the working class and eviscerating social benefits in a welfare state. This is something Bernie Sanders alluded to in the beginning of his campaign but backed off due to political correctness. It is astounding how the Left–both in Europe and the U.S.–permits identity politics to trump supposedly economic sense.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive