The One Thing Obama Must Do To Achieve Presidential Greatness

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.


  1. I know there are the “caveats” etc., but is it really a good idea to cite horserace polls 14 months before the election? It reinforces an incorrect media preoccupation. Why not just say that economic fundamentals suggest that Obama is probably going to lose?

    On another note, I’m curious if Obama would benefit from a radically faster withdrawal strategy from the wars. Wars are a part of the “bread and peace” model but political scientists never seem to talk about the “peace” part.

  2. Gerald,

    in the context of this particular post – dealing with current opinion trends – I thought it useful to show that those trends are not going in the direction Obama wants in key battleground states. But your comment actually touches on an interesting issue – whether we should even pay attention to popular opinion polls when constructing our forecast models. Some of the poli sci forecast models use only “fundamental” factors, such as growth in disposal income and casualties in war, while others also incorporate public approval ratings. The argument against using public approval ratings is that they don’t add anything to the forecast model’s predictive power, since they are also driven by the same fundamentals of economic growth and casualties. it’s an interesting theoretical debate.

    Note, however, that if we aren’t worried about the theory behind explaining election outcomes, and just want to get the best prediction of the electoral college vote, Sam Wang has shown that following state-based opinion polls is the simplest and most accurate forecast tool. So there is something to be said for paying attention to state-level polling, as long as we keep in mind that these numbers are liable to change, perhaps considerably, in the next 12 months.

    Your last point is a good one, and merits a longer response than what I can provide in a comments section. What you are suggesting is, in essence, a simple way to lower U.S. military casualties: withdraw our military forces from combat areas. In theory, that should bolster the president’s reelection chances (at least according to the bread and peace model). But of course, that model is predicated on the idea that casualties are a indicator of the public’s tolerance or support for a particular war – when casualties go up, support drops. Whether a precipitous withdrawal from current wars would bolster the president’s popularity is perhaps another question. Let me get back to this with a longer post.

  3. The only reason he’s sufffering in the polls is the economy.

    You think there’s some solution to jobs that involves working with Republicans? I don’t. I think they are ecstatic that UE is so high because it tarnishes Obama and hurts his reelection chances.

    Bill Clinton had the benefit of not one, but two bubbles (housing and dot com). Obama is POTUS during the greatest global debt deleveraging in memory. It would have chewed up HRC or McCain or Romney just like it has Obama.

    Obama is the exact same person he was four years ago when David Brooks was gushing about his “equanimity.” Now the economy continues to stall so he’s “weak”.

    Professor, do you see him as a “below average cohort”? I certainly agree that he needs to *act* on jobs. Not sure what form that takes but it’s got to be his focus for the next year. Will that bring UE down a point? Nope.

    Do you think he needs to swing for the fences as it were and propose fiscal stimulus? That would mean he’s a socialist since the first stimulus “didn’t work” (Note that revisions to previous GDP show that the stimulus worked wildly well).

    I think his numbers will go back up once Repubicans are forced to show their hands on the economy. All that blather about getting the economy moving is going to have to be made concrete. They say government can’t help so I’m not sure what plans they have in mind.

    Finally, Rick Perry may save Obama in the end.

  4. Adam,

    You are exactly right – he is the same person he was four years ago, and the primary reason his approval ratings have dropped is the economy. These are points I have made repeatedly for the last two years. Where we disagree, I think, is with your suggestion (if I’m reading you correctly) that he needs to “swing for the fences” by proposing a second stimulus package. If the Republicans block this – as they will – you suggest they will be blamed if the economy continues to lag, rather than Obama. The reality is that, fairly or not, it is the President who takes the blame (or credit) for how the economy performs. Voters want economic results, and if they don’t get them, the first casualty is usually the President. While you may be right that Republicans do not want to cooperate, it will be harder for them to refuse to do so if Obama makes a legitimate effort to meet them half way. Proposing a second stimulus, Krugman style, is precisely the wrong strategy to take as it makes it easy for Republicans to justify saying “no”. The larger point, which you seem to grasp, is that there’s not much Obama can do, whether Republicans cooperate or not, to lower unemployment under 8% by 2012. That’s what makes this reelection fight so difficult – it may already be too late.

    Finally, I think you are underestimating Perry’s appeal. At this point, the 2012 election is shaping up as a referendum on Obama and the economy, much as 2008 was a referendum on Bush and the economy (and Iraq). And, as in 2008, almost any reasonable opposition candidate will stand to benefit. I think Perry will certainly fit the “reasonableness” category.

  5. Hibbs has a post on B&P in 2012.

    He estimates that Afghanistan will cost Obama about 0.24 percentage points, assuming no policy change.

    If American fatalities in Afghanistan fall to zero about now, that goes down to 0.13 percentage points.

    Korea and Vietnam had American fatalities in the tens of thousands. When fatalities are in the low thousands, as they have been in recent years, the conjectured effect is too small to stand out from the noise. Maybe that’s why political scientists rarely mention ‘the “peace” part’.

  6. David,

    I was in the middle of writing a longer post responding to Gerald’s very good question, but you beat me to the punch, and in more concise fashion. Hibbs’ model, and others like it, dating back to John Muellar’s pioneering work, are based on American wars with thousand of casualties. They aren’t precisely calibrated enough to tease out the relative impact of a change in casualties numbering in the hundreds. This is a debate, by the way, that played out in the Bush administration, with some arguing that the public’s tolerance for extended wars, even those with low casualties, has diminished in recent years, largely due to more pervasive media exposure. If I can, I’ll write an extended post that develops these points, but thanks for the link to Hibbs, and the comment, David.

  7. Matthew, you write:

    “While you may be right that Republicans do not want to cooperate, it will be harder for them to refuse to do so if Obama makes a legitimate effort to meet them half way.”

    This response really suggests that you have a different perception of what is possible with this Republican House. “Half-way”? The Republicans are seeking nothing but a mixture of austerity and tax cuts that have little affect in an economy in which corporations are sitting on record profits refusing to invest these funds in the U.S. largely because of a lack of demand (thats my “Krugman style”). You seem to concede that in the second part of your response, but your suggestion of going “half-way” means little given that the House was willing to default if they did not receive what they wanted. I think a better suggestion for Obama comes from a recent post on the “Mokey Cage”:

    “…my discussion of Lynn Vavreck’s The Message Matters. She argues that, yes, economic conditions have a powerful impact on presidential elections. But when those conditions favor a candidate, it matters whether the candidate capitalizes on this fact by talking about the economy. (Al Gore did not.) And when those conditions do not favor a candidate, it matters whether the candidate can successfully change the subject. And by “matters,” I mean she shows that these strategies shift vote share by a large enough amount to influence the outcome of some presidential elections, even after taking into account the economy.”

    Now, I am not totally convinced that a campaign could shift the message away from this terrible economy that you rightly point to as sinking Obama’s chances, but suggesting some type of “legitimate” raapproachment with House Republicans to promote economic growth seems to be a real misreading of the level of their opposition. BTW this does not make them “evil”, but it does make them obstructionists seeking to achieve their political goals (Obama’s defeat, drowning government in a bathtub, etc…) at the expense of economic growth.

  8. Will,

    Your excellent comment addresses a significant debate that I suspect is going on (or went on) in the Obama White House: with the election 14 months off, do we posture, in Trumanesque fashion, by placing a series of policy markers on the public agenda that distinguish us from Republicans – and which they won’t support – and let the voters decide? Or do we really try to strike a deal with Republicans, in the hope that the legislation (say, some version of a grand bargain centered on entitlement reform, or a combination of more spending cuts with a restructuring of the tax code) will a) pay political dividends and b) perhaps even impact the economy in a positive fashion down the road? I think your inclination is for Obama to be Trumanesque by accentuating partisan differences. At this late date, that may make the most sense politically in the short-term, but probably not policy wise i the long-term and perhaps not even politically either looking ahead. And there’s the rub – we are deep into the election season, which makes it harder to do the right thing.

    I do want to take issue with a couple of your assertions. First, it’s not clear to me that all or even a majority of Republicans in the House were willing to default. If they were, we would not have a debt deal – one that almost half the Tea Party caucus opposed – but that half of the Democrats did too. This was a centrist policy agreement that played both ideological ends against one another. Second, I am pretty sure that Republicans don’t view themselves as against “economic growth” – indeed, their whole legislative agenda is predicated on pursuing policy that in their view, rightly or not, will stimulate growth.

  9. Matthew:

    You say no president in the modern era has been re-elected with an unemoloyment rate above 8 percent. I don’t know what you regard as the modern era, but my definition is simple: if I was alive during someone’s presidency then he was a president of the modern era.
    Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected in 1936 with an unemployment rate above 16 percent. And he was re-elected pretty handily. That’s because it was clear then that the Republicans had no answers beyond more austerity. And it seems clear that they don’t now. You write that their “whole legislative agenda is predicated on pursuing policy that in their view, rightly or not, will stimulate growth.”
    I think that’s debatable. Martin Feldstein, the most Republican of economists, wrote in the New York Times of May 4 that “Reducing the budget deficit and stopping the explosion of our national debt will require more tax revenue as well as reduced government spending. But the need for more revenue needn’t mean higher tax rates.
    As the bipartisan fiscal commission appointed by President Obama stressed last year, tax revenues can be increased substantially by limiting the deductions, credits and exclusions that are essentially government spending by another name.”
    Congressional Republicans all say that reducing the deficit is essential for renewed growth, but very few want to limit deductions and exclusions (loopholes, by another name). So, in Feldstein’s view, very few really want to limit the deficit, supposedly a sine qua non for economic growth. As Krugman has noted a number of times, they don’t really seem to care about reducing the deficit — at least not if it puts them in conflict with their pledge not to raise taxes. Which, after all, is really a pledge to not think.

    Given this, I don’t think it very far-fetched at all to expect a second Obama term.

  10. Stephen,

    Excellent comment. I particularly appreciate your calling me on my lack of precision regarding how I define the “modern” presidency. For future reference, most political scientists view FDR as a bridge between the premodern and modern presidencies,so when I write about the modern era, I’m usually referring to the post-FDR transition presidency. But I should have defined my terms more clearly.

    You are correct that the bipartisan commission that Obama appointed stressed that revenues can be increased without an increase in tax rates – a position that Obama studiously refrained from endorsing, I should add. If you have read my previous posts, you will know that I have long argued that any deficit reduction plan endorsed by Republicans will include some version of the Feldstein position: no increase in tax rates, but substantial tax reform that will include closing tax loopholes. I stand by that prediction.

    Krugman is surely an excellent economist, but he is a lousy political analyst – a point I have made repeatedly at this site. I understand why progressives read his column – he provides comfort to the liberal soul, much as Rush Limbaugh boosts the morale of the Republican Right. But his assessments of Republicans motives and strategies are hopelessly contaminated by his partisan leanings, and you need to wean yourself from taking them seriously. Krugman is an economist and columnist whose job is to preach to the liberal choir. He does this quite well. Alas, political analysis is not his forte. For that, I hope you come here. My track record (and you can read my past posts to verify this) is far from perfect, but it is better than his.

    As evidence, consider Krugman’s assertion that Republicans are not serious about reducing the deficit if it puts them in conflict with their pledge not to raise taxes. In Krugmanesque fashion, you describe this as a “pledge not to think”. Here is an alternative interpretation: by holding the line on tax increases, Republicans gain leverage in the political negotiations on how best to reduce the deficit. The Krugman’s of the world think this is lousy economics, but the sad reality is that these budget decisions are driven by politics, not economic theory. Politics is the art of the possible. As long as Republicans remain committed to the “no tax increase” pledge, Obama and Democrats will have to factor that into their budget negotiations. You may think this is bad economics. I don’t care – all I’m interested in is understanding what is likely to happen – not what Krugman and his disciples think should happen.

    This leads me to my second point: political scientists have a decent track record of predicting election outcomes. At this point, assuming the fundamentals that drive elections do not change appreciably between now and November, 2012, this election is essentially a toss up. That means that you are correct that it is not far-fetched to expect a second term for Obama – but it is equally not far fetched to expect a Republican president in 2012. Given these fundamentals, you have a choice: you can believe in the never-never land described by Krugman, or you can come here to see what is likely to happen.

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