Obama at Midterm – Grading on a Presidential Curve
By Gil Troy
(Originally published in the Institute for Research on Public Policy's"Policy Options", Oct. 2010)
Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.
The United States has traveled a long way from the euphoria of Election Night, 2008 to the crankiness of the 2010 midterm elections. Even President Barack Obama’s most ardent supporters agree that the turnaround in popular support he has experienced has been dramatic, unprecedented, unnerving, The “Yes We Can” Candidate of 2008 – who seemingly could do no wrong – is now seen by millions as the President who can do no right leading a sobered “No We Can’t” citizenry, many of whom have lost jobs, lost hope for the future, and lost faith in the man who seemed so promising as a leader just two years ago. Here is Barack Obama’s challenge. He is not only confronting two wars, one ongoing economic mess, and countless other cultural, social, diplomatic, ideological and political crises. He is not only being measured against the Presidents who preceded him, some of whom are encased in legend, setting stratospheric standards for any worthy successor. He is also competing against himself and the impossibly high hopes his election unleashed.
It is still worth remembering Barack Obama’s shining moment in November 2008, even amid soaring unemployment, the Afghanistan quagmire, tea party demagoguery, anger over the deficits, anxiety about the new health care legislation, fear of renewed Islamist terrorism, and Fox News shout-show host Glenn Beck’s attempt to hijack the civil rights legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The library of books published about Obama’s brilliant 2008 presidential campaign all serve to remind us just how unlikely his victory was. Back in spring 2004, before his bombastic Democratic National Convention debut, few Americans had heard of this self-described, “skinny guy with a funny name.” And his name was so strange, that the first time in 2004 President George W. Bush saw a Democrat visiting the White House with an OBAMA button, Bush, genuinely confused, peered close and asked “Osama?” Moreover, no African-American had ever been elected President – and at the time, most people were quite sure that the Democratic nominee would be the first woman with a serious shot at becoming President of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The fact that Obama nevertheless won, and that his victory triggered a national orgy of high-fiving and fist-bumping, among rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, Obamians and McCainiacs, blacks and whites, reminds us that national moods are variable – and that Americans in particular are the ever-believing people, constantly searching for salvation, perpetually primed to rally around a great white – or now black – hope. Great American leaders have always understood this addiction to redemption. That, frankly, was part of Obama’s appeal – and part of his plan. Obama surveyed the carnage of the George W. Bush presidency. He could have concluded then, as many are concluding now, that Americans had lost their capacity to believe. Bush had become the presidential master of disaster, mired in Iraq, buffeted by hurricane Katrina, mismanaging a teetering economy – which ultimately cratered just weeks before Election Day.
Yet Obama understood that Americans would respond to a message that they could do better, that their best days were not behind them, that America remained a land of promise. Obama successfully channeled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s promise in 1932, offering a New Deal to the American people. He eloquently evoked John F. Kennedy’s optimistic vision from the 1960s of a New Frontier. He echoed Jimmy Carter’s post-Vietnam and Watergate vows in 1976 of “I’ll never lie to you” and “why not the best?” He updated and broadened Ronald Reagan’s appealing dream of a Morning in America, making it Democratic, liberal, multicultural. And, like Bill Clinton in 1992 he became the “Man from Hope.” In both the bruising primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton and in the general election campaign against John McCain, the man became the message, embodying Americans’ dreams. By simply electing Obama as the first African-American president, Americans could redeem themselves and their country, demonstrating their openmindedness, optimism, and faith in the future.
As Obama navigates through what is looking like a tough Congressional-midterm election season for Democrats, he should remember that both the volatility of the national mood and the credulity of the American public could redeem his presidency – or at least secure him a second term. In fact, the three presidents he most models himself on – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and, believe it or not, Ronald Reagan – were shellacked in midterm elections before achieving convincing re-election victories.
While every modern president since Franklin Roosevelt has compared himself and been compared to Franklin Roosevelt, the attempts to link Roosevelt and Obama have been particularly intense. During the transition, Obama publicized the fact that he was reading up on Roosevelt’s famous, transformative first hundred days. That tidbit boosted the sales of Jonathan Alter’s book on the subject “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.” Alter returned the favor in his recent book, “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” writing a more than 400-page valentine to the current chief executive – sprinkled with admiring comparisons between Obama and Roosevelt.
Beyond all this cozy Washington posturing, the comparison emphasizes the sobering economic conditions which greeted Roosevelt as well as Obama on their respective inauguration days, and the soaring ambitions both Democrats brought to the White House. Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said a crisis is a terrible thing to waste; indeed Obama has governed by that motto. In pushing through a health care reform bill, along with dozens of other, significant, reforms, Obama has revealed his desire to be the most consequential president since Franklin Roosevelt.
Unlike Obama, Roosevelt was able to shape more of a mandate for change in his first term. Both Obama and Roosevelt were blessed to succeed unpopular and failed predecessors. But it has become clear that Obama basically won a GO-George election – a Get Out George W. Bush contest. His plummeting polls suggest that Americans are not looking for an updated New Deal. Many of Obama’s reforms have worried the public. Most dramatically, of course, Obama’s challenge remains “the economy, stupid.” For all his creativity, despite many legislative accomplishments, Obama is still saddled with a listing economy, and devastatingly high unemployment figures.
Obama can only look back and envy Roosevelt’s experiences in the 1934 midterm elections, which Roosevelt and the Democrats cleverly turned into a referendum on Roosevelt and the New Deal. Rallying around their confident, creative new President, American voters gave him a mandate for change. Nine new Democratic senators were elected, giving Democrats 69 of the 100 senators, and nine new Democrats added to the already-strong majority of 313 in the House of Representatives. By contrast, polls suggest, Obama and the Democrats in 2010 are working hard to hold onto the Senate and may not even secure a bare majority in the House.
Obama might learn by looking at the 1938 midterm elections, which routed Roosevelt and the Democrats. After Roosevelt won re-election in 1936 by strong margins too, he -- and his fellow liberals -- overstepped. The New Republic called Roosevelt’s re-election victory “the greatest revolution in our political history.” The liberal political writer Max Lerner rhapsodized: “Mr. Roosevelt is now, as never before, a colossus bestriding the American world.”
Believing his press clippings, feeling overconfident, Roosevelt tried packing the Supreme Court by adding one new justice for each justice over 70-years-old, to a maximum of 15 (from the traditional nine). Americans saw this as an affront to the Constitution, and the proposal failed. Unbowed, Roosevelt then put his muscle behind a number of challengers to conservative Democrats, especially in the South, who had been fighting the New Deal. Again, Roosevelt failed. In addition, Americans struggled through a renewed economic crisis as the Recession of 1937 to 1938 wiped out many of the gains some had enjoyed thanks to the launching of the New Deal. On Election Day, 1938, the Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate and a whopping 72 in the House.
Roosevelt learned from this debacle. He respected Americans’ constitutional conservatism and in the future usually fought party rivals with more subtlety and circumspection. The brash, ambitious, statist, progressivism of 1935 and 1936, which produced the New Deal’s signature program, Social Security, evolved into a more cautious creed, which the historian Alan Brinkely labeled “the end of reform.” As a result, America’s welfare state would not follow the European model. Big Government, American style offers a hybrid of safety nets and spurs within a framework of capitalism, private property, sensitivity to budget deficits, constitutional caution and occasional rhetoric against Big Government. After the election, Roosevelt expected to retire to his Hyde Park estate, within two years, when his second term ended. However, the outbreak of World War II led to a movement to draft Roosevelt for a third term, and he not only complied, he managed the movement from behind the scenes.
No one wants a Hitler or Mussolini to rise on the world scene and help Obama win re-election. But a chastened president can sometimes be a more effective president. Thus far, Obama has been better at passing programs than selling them to the American people. He is like an athlete wracking up individual records without leading his team to victory. In the second half of his first term, Obama should go back to some of the fundamentals he mastered in the 2008 campaign. In running for president, Obama both tended to the grassroots and sang a song Americans applauded. His presidency has lacked both that common touch and that lyricism, even as he has amassed an impressive list of programs passed and reforms introduced.
The experience of Barack Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, also proves that a chastened president can become a more responsive and popular leader. The excitement Obama generated in 2008 tended to make people forget just how much excitement Clinton generated in 1992. But when Bill Clinton first started wowing and wooing the American people during his campaign against George H.W. Bush, many Baby Boomers declared him their Kennedy, the first politician in a generation who could get hearts palpitating and hopes soaring. Clinton also entered the White House with great ambitions. But the economy was too good, people were too complacent, and he was too undisciplined to achieve what Obama has achieved programmatically. Nevertheless, Clinton’s failed health care reform, and his scattershot approach annoyed millions, triggering a backlash. In 1994, the Democrats lost eight Senate seats, 54 House seats and control of the Congress for the first time in forty years, since the days of Dwight Eisenhower.
Clinton was shell-shocked. Few Democrats had expected a loss on such a scale. The day after the election, Beltway Democrats seemed annoyed, indignant that the voters dared to remove them from their Congressional baronies. Clinton, both agile and ambitious, retooled, shifting rightward, even as he went into a tailspin. By April 1995, he was insisting plaintively, pathetically, “the President is still relevant here,” noting that “the Constitution” gave him relevance.
While Clinton’s return to the center, and to smaller, less ambitious, more digestible initiatives helped him restore his presidency, the turning point came shortly after his plaintive press conference when a twisted domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City. Clinton, America’s empath-in-chief, emerged as a leader. He struck the right tone, showing enough human vulnerability to help the nation mourn, while displaying enough presidential steeliness to help the nation move on.
Leaders – and particularly America’s presidents – are defined by such moments. George W. Bush may have won re-election with the simple gesture he made in the aftermath of September 11, when he hugged a rescue worker while reassuring Americans through a megaphone at Ground Zero. Similarly, he may have derailed his presidency by floundering – and not choreographing such a moment – during Hurricane Katrina.
Surprisingly, as President, Obama has not yet shown an ability to transform a moment of crisis into a defining moment, a lasting impression of effective leadership. The man who saved his presidential campaign from being derailed amid revelations that his preacher Jeremiah Wright was a racial demagogue by delivering an historic speech about race in America, has yet to master a similar moment as president. The BP oil spill, the Fort Hood massacre, the failed terrorist bombing attempts on a jetliner and in Times Square, all offered opportunities which he failed to take. Having used rhetoric so effectively during the campaign, having redefined a vision of liberal nationalism for the 21st century, as President, Obama has been surprisingly reticent to reprise that role – even as Americans are yearning for reassurance during this time of crisis.
Clinton eventually won re-election in 1996. Something else that helped him immensely – and may help Obama too – was his rivals’ utter impotence. So far, the Republicans have succeeded in criticizing the President but they have not found a leader who seems able to take on Obama. The Tea Party rebellion and the rise of Glenn Beck could help re-elect Barack Obama, making him appear as the mature candidate once again. In 1996, the Republican Party gave Clinton – and the Democrats – the gift of Bob Dole, unintentionally smoothing the way for Clinton’s victory.
Obama may be banking on following the trail of a Republican president, Ronald Reagan. In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama makes it clear that he watched Reagan carefully as President and admired his leadership abilities but not his ideology. During the primary campaign, Obama infuriated Hillary Rodham Clinton – and her husband – by praising Reagan as a transformational leader, while suggesting that Clinton’s little policy band-aids did not measure up. Like Obama, Reagan entered the White House during a time of economic crisis – and initially watched the numbers tank. Reagan’s dramatic assault on “big government” first looked like a big flop. By late 1981 and early 1982, Democrats were criticizing the “Reagan Recession,” and anticipating that Reagan and his Revolution would be a one-term wonder.
During the midterm elections of 1982, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House. “The stench of failure hangs over the Reagan White House,” the New York Times claimed at midterm. With unemployment high, national morale low, and the administration seemingly adrift, Reaganism was looking suspiciously like Carterism with the focused, class-bound anguish of unemployment substituting for the broadly shared pain of inflation. Two Democrats, former Vice President Walter Mondale and Senator John Glenn, defeated Reagan in presidential trial heats. The Washington Post columnist David Broder and others declared Reaganism dead.
Ultimately, the resilience of the American economy resurrected Reagan’s presidency. The former actor’s timing was impeccable. Coming on stage during an economic crisis, he watched it get worse, only to see the boom begin by 1983, in time for his 1984 re-election campaign. Reagan then framed the cyclical upswing as “Morning in America,” the vindication of Reaganomics, and his Revolution took off.
This time around, the American economy has lagged longer than many analysts expected. Still, even if it languishes for another year or year and a half, as long as it recovers in 2012 Obama will have bragging rights – and a strong shot at re-election.
Of course, not all Presidents who endured midterm losses have experienced a comeback. The Democrats under Jimmy Carter lost three Senate seats and 15 House seats during the 1978 midterm elections. Carter went on to lose the presidency to Ronald Reagan, amid high inflation, high interest rates and the great humiliation America endured during the prolonged Iranian hostage crisis. Like Obama, Carter had a meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency. Like Obama, Carter was a golden boy who had always succeeded at everything he tried, until he entered the Oval Office. And like Obama, Carter was a thoughtful, bookish, earnest do-gooder who found it difficult to reassure Americans that America’s greatest days were still ahead.
Ironically, the great liberal lion Ted Kennedy helped trigger the Reagan Revolution by running against Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. In fact, in the last half-century, the only Presidents who have lost re-election races entered after being bruised by a primary battle. George H. W. Bush in 1992 was weakened by Pat Buchanan. Carter was weakened by Kennedy in 1980. And Gerald Ford was weakened by Ronald Reagan. The single most important thing Obama needs to do to secure re-election is keep his party united behind him, as it is. The single most effective thing Republicans could do to weaken Obama would be to secretly support some leftwing Democratic dissident, a Ralph Nader, a Dennis Kucinich, who could somehow hurt Obama in a primary or two, thus puncturing his aura of invincibility while forcing Obama to swing left and lose the center.
From the start of his administration, Barack Obama’s presidency has paralleled both Ronald Reagan’s and Jimmy Carter’s paths. Many Obama critics see him replicating Jimmy Carter’s ways, wooing America’s enemies, neglecting America’s allies, telegraphing weakness at home and abroad. Obama, on the other hand, wants to be the Democratic Reagan, pressing the reset button on the Reagan Revolution, making government effective, relevant, and popular again.
History is not destiny. Barack Obama ultimately will follow his own path. But there is a reason why White House library shelves are crowded with presidential biographies. Presidents understand that there is much to be learned by studying their predecessors’ successes and failures. The record shows that historical forces make a huge difference, be it the state of the economy, the actions of rivals, or the moves of foreign states. But each outside factor offers a president a leadership opportunity. Successful presidents are not lucky; but it does take great skill to turn dumb luck into lasting good fortune, as Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton frequently did.
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