What is the one step presidents must take to insure their historical legacy as effective leaders?
I’ve addressed this issue in previous posts, but want to revisit it today in light of Michael Kazin’s article at the TNR website in which he tries to put Obama’s falling popularity in some historical context. After reciting the litany of woes affecting Obama’s presidency, Kazin notes that “Such a descent is neither a remarkable nor an exceptional development in American politics, which might provide a bit of ironic comfort to Obama as he peddles around Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, the history of the modern presidency is replete with disappointment and failure.” For Kazin, only “four post-TR chief executives retired from the job with their popularity and reputations either intact or enhanced: Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan.” We can quibble with Kazin’s list (I’ve dealt with the issue of presidential rankings many times here), but that’s not what I find troubling about his article. Instead it’s his failure to fully address what factors contribute to the perception of presidential effectiveness.
Kazin suggests that in time (but how much time?) Obama’s considerable accomplishments “may yet restore his image as an effective leader.” Kazin cites the health care act, the Dodd-Frank banking bill, the auto company bailout, “and perhaps even the 2009 stimulus” as acts that will be viewed more favorably in the future. For that to happen, however, Obama must jettison his post-midterm strategy of trying to reach agreement with Republicans. Instead, he must return to “the bold stance he promised during his 2008 campaign” and make a “serious effort to reverse the nation’s decline” rather than “trying to assuage his critics with timid rhetoric about civility and compromise.”
Kazin is correct that most presidents leave office less popular than when they entered – but there are presidents who leave with lower popularity – and then there are Jimmy Carter-type failures. The essential ingredient that differentiates Carter-type failure from lesser failure, and which ties the successful presidents together is whether the president won reelection to a second term. Consider Kazin’s successful presidents: Coolidge took office when Harding died, but he easily won reelection in 1924. Roosevelt, of course won four presidential elections. Both Eisenhower and Reagan served two full terms. Winning reelection does not guarantee one’s historical legacy as a great, or good, president, but it is the necessary first step. Without it a president is destined to sit in the ranks of the average or below average presidents.
If Obama is to reverse the growing perceptions that his is a failed presidency, then, the first and most essential step is to win in 2012. How can he do so? Here Kazin is guilty of recycling the tired progressive line that an Obama victory can be achieved by changing his public tone and demeanor, in order to rediscover his 2008 election mojo. Presumably that means stop playing nice and instead come out fighting. That advice ignores the more fundamental factors that contributed to Obama’s 2008 win, particularly voter dissatisfaction with Republicans, a sluggish economy and growing fatigue with the Iraq war – fundamentals that now suggest 2012 is a dead heat, at best. These fundamentals aren’t much affected by changes in the incumbent president’s rhetorical stance or public attitude. Nor it is obvious why a return to the “bold stance” (whatever that means) that Obama exhibited in his first two years will be a surefire recipe for turning his presidency around. Indeed, it was that “bold stance”, and the legislation it engendered, that contributed, along with the sluggish economy, to the historic Republican gains in 2010. In particular, studies show that members of Congress who supported the stimulus and health care legislation suffered at the polls.
If Obama wants to join the pantheon of effective presidents, then, the first step is to win in 2012. Alas, as of today – with my usual reminder that there is still time for conditions to change – the trend lines do not bode well for Obama’s reelection. Consider the latest polling in Pennsylvania – a state critical to Obama’s 2012 reelection and which he won in 2008. A poll released today shows his support dropping rapidly, with only 35% of registered voters approving of the job he is doing, down 10% in 6 months. However, he still beats a “generic Republican” in that state by 36%-31%. That suggests that who the Republicans nominate may, in a close race, be the determining factor in Pennsylvania. Indeed, if the race is as close as the numbers currently suggest, who the Republican nominee is will play a larger role in determining the overall election outcome than it did in 2008. From a purely horserace perspective, 14 months out, this is shaping up to be a very exciting race. (Insert Dickinson caveats here.)
Nationally, of course, Obama’s approval ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency, amid continue reports of sluggish job growth. It’s not immediately clear how Kazin’s strategy promises to reverse either those polling numbers, or the faltering economy that is driving them in the wrong direction. At this stage, talk is cheap. Instead, Obama needs as a first step to get legislation through Congress that shows the potential for stimulating economic growth – and that means working with Republicans, not castigating them as paragons of evil.
It may be that Kazin is right – that at some point we will look back at Obama’s presidency and realize that it accomplished a great deal. But it makes a considerable difference to his historical legacy if that turning point takes place in the next 12 months, or the next 12 years. His chances of joining the pantheon of above- average presidents, rather than the below- average cohort, depends first and foremost on the outcome of the 2012 election.
Addendum: Apropos of my previous post, the White House released this photo today showing the president receiving a national security briefing while on vacation. I understand the logic driving the decision to release the photo, but it says something about the state of political discourse today that the administration felt compelled to “prove” the President is keeping up with events.