A Theory of Presidential Success
In deference to the reason we're all off work today--well, those of you who have jobs where you're allowed to go to work; I'd be home anyway, thanks to the hidden/palsied hand of city bureaucracy--some musings on presidential success and failure.
I started thinking about this in the context of Ronald Reagan, cited recently by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as a "great president"--an assessment with which few if any Republicans would disagree, but many Democrats likely still dispute. Given the myopic tendency toward thinking about public affairs, there's a strong correlation between "great" and "does/did things I support." Add how Reagan has been encrusted in myth over the 21 years since he left office, and it's not so easy to parse out the man from the legend.
I grew up detesting Reagan, first for what seemed like his obvious falsity (I remember watching his Iran-Contra mea culpa speech at my grandparents' house when I was 13 or so, and just being amazed at how obviously full of shit he was) and what seemed (and still seems) like his somewhat cruel sense of humor. Then when I was a little older and I couldn't totally argue away his accomplishments, I found other grounds to dismiss them, e.g. "sure, the Cold War ended without nuclear war or the succumbing of the West to communism, but we spent ourselves into what will turn out to be oblivion anyway, so, yeah!" Rosalynn Carter's line about Reagan's politics making people comfortable with their prejudices stayed with me too. Some of that still holds: the dirty wars in Central America Reagan supported were horrific, and his various panderings to racists--from starting his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi without reference to the atrocity that happened there two decades earlier to the frequent references to "welfare queens" and "strapping young bucks"--were deplorable. Likewise his indifference to AIDS until it started killing people he knew and was fond of, like Rock Hudson.
But whatever one thinks of Reagan the person, and for that matter whether or not one thinks Reagan was a "great" president, there's no doubt in my mind he was a successful president, probably the most successful president since FDR. He accomplished the vast majority of what he set out to do, and the country unquestionably was in better shape when he left office than when he took the oath. Those have to be the two primary criteria for presidential success: roughly speaking, how the president did, and how the country did. The first speaks to the president's political effectiveness, the second to how his policies impacted the country and how well he did at avoiding terrible mistakes. (One could add a third criterion, having to do with lasting political or policy impact, and make a strong argument that it's the most important--but again, that's the most subjective area of analysis. Was Reagan's legacy the end of the Cold War, "restoring America's confidence," or massive deficits? The arguments can and do go on forever, defying resolution.)
Stepping back from it a bit, it's not hard to see why Republicans so quickly turn to Reagan. Consider what else they have to lean on since Eisenhower (whose decided moderation makes him a problematic hero for today's arch-conservatives anyway). Nixon's record of political and policy accomplishment was mixed, but some of his "wins" don't do much for the modern right (the EPA), and of course the circumstances of his departure from office obscured everything else. Ford was a non-entity whose accomplishments were negative--he managed the transfer of power without disaster--and failed to win re-election (a big deal in this analysis). Bush I is looking better all the time to non-ideologues, but between the tax hike and his 1992 loss he gets no love from today's Republicans. Bush II was a political success, and his inheritors seem to want the exact same set of policies he favored... but nobody is willing to admit their abiding belief in those policies. He left office widely despised, and there's no question the country was in far worse shape in 2009 than it had been eight years earlier.
Not that the Democrats have much to brag on either. More than forty years later, we're still not sure how we feel about LBJ: the way in which the history has been written--by the Republicans who mostly held power thereafter, and the liberals who opposed the Johnson administration at the time--decidedly emphasizes the negatives of his tenure. The similarities between LBJ and Bush 43, two Texans who took office under unusual (albeit very different) circumstances and saw their clear domestic agendas overtaken by poorly thought out foreign wars that drained treasury and political capital--might be more apparent to future historians than they are to us today. Jimmy Carter has very few overall defenders. Bill Clinton is the most interesting case, as usual: his first-term agenda was largely foiled and much of his second term was spent fending off scandal, but the country thrived during his administration. Even most sane Republicans will now admit that the guy they loathed during the '90s did a decent job.
Which brings us to Obama. He took office amid hopes that he might emerge as "the liberal Reagan," a compelling leader with superb communication talents who could begin to reorient the country. For many reasons, this hasn't happened so far. It's not so much that his popularity has fallen; Reagan's did as well, in 1982, and his party took big losses that year. But by then he'd passed a lot of legislation, and had lain a foundation for a mammoth re-election win two years later and further accomplishments in his second term. If anything, it seems Obama will face a more difficult set of challenges going forward in terms of making policy.
I remain optimistic about Obama's 2012 prospects, as well as the eventual vindication of the stimulus. But the reverses he's taken, or seems to be taking, on health care and other issues confound the Reagan comparisons. There are all sorts of explanations and justifications for this; the one I find most compelling is that while Reagan had a cohort of southern Democrats in Congress who mostly supported his agenda, Obama faces an unprecedentedly united political opposition. But ultimately history doesn't factor in excuses. I suspect that on the second criterion, the state of the country at the end of a presidential term compared to the beginning, Obama will look good; how could he not? But his own political effectiveness seems very much in doubt right now.