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Obama’s in Good Company: All Presidents End Up Unpopular

In Washington, on both left and right, a new piece of conventional wisdom is hardening into place: Barack Obama’s presidency is slowly collapsing under the burdens of a bad economy, a rudderless foreign policy, and confusion about how the man who once twinkled with charisma wants to change the country. Even if the president manages to get re-elected, his chance to “win the future,” pundits agree, is probably over. 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 pedals around Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, the history of the modern presidency is replete with disappointment and failure.

Since Theodore Roosevelt turned the office into the cynosure of governmental power and media attention just over a century ago, only a handful of his 17 successors have left the White House without leaving their main goals unfulfilled, losing the support of most voters, or both. As the presidency grew more “imperial” in its reach, the presidents themselves increasingly fell prey to the arrogance of power. They might have paid heed to Lincoln’s famous caution, uttered near the end of the Civil War, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” 

Some of the downfalls are obvious: Harding and Nixon beset by scandal, Hoover impotent to stem the economic debacle, LBJ helpless to defeat an army of Vietnamese peasants, George W. Bush drowning in the aftermath of Katrina and the onset of the Great Recession. Other presidents left office soon after flunking their most significant challenges: Woodrow Wilson was unable to convince the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty, and Harry Truman failed to end the bloody stalemate in Korea. Still others did little to distinguish their tenure. Think of Bill Clinton, who survived impeachment but whose signal achievements—the NAFTA treaty, welfare reform, and balancing the budget—were all items his Republican opposition had long demanded.

Just four post-TR chief executives retired from the job with their popularity and reputations either intact or enhanced: Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan. Silent Cal governed during an economic boom and did nothing to surpass his own decidedly modest expectations. The coming of World War II saved FDR from having to govern during a long recession that may well have defeated him in his bid for a third term in 1940. Prosperity and a tiny unemployment rate beamed on Eisenhower, who was also boosted by a spirit of bipartisanship during the early cold war. And Reagan could thank Mikhail Gorbachev for taking the initiative to wind down that same global conflict.

Yet, the standing of some “failed” presidents has a way of improving over time. Decades later, certain decisions and policies appear essential, even prescient. Wilson lost his epic battle with the Republican-controlled Senate, but he had already done much to create several key institutions of the modern administrative state—the Federal Reserve, a strong anti-trust law, and the Federal Trade Commission—as well as signing laws that restricted child labor and established an eight-hour day for railroad workers. The Lyndon Johnson who sent hundreds of thousands of Americans into the quagmire of Indochina was also the chief executive who signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, launched Medicare and Medicaid, abolished the old quota system that discriminated against any immigrant who didn’t come from Western Europe, and created the Head Start program. Before Nixon’s paranoid crimes destroyed his presidency, he had endorsed the first Earth Day and set up both Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When a future Congress gets around to passing a comprehensive, humane immigration bill, even George W. Bush will be hailed as a prophet.

Barack Obama is unlikely to be able to silence those predicting his downfall, at least in the near future. Every head of a government caught in the spiral of downturn and austerity that is afflicting nations on both sides of the North Atlantic, as well as Japan, is struggling, inevitably, to counter low poll numbers, an emboldened opposition, and the skepticism of the media.

But what Obama accomplished during his first two years in office—against a Republican party determined to destroy him—may yet restore his image as an effective leader. The Affordable Care Act, if it survives review by the Supreme Court and assaults in Congress, may (and should) be seen as a big step toward giving Americans what citizens of every other advanced industrial nation already enjoy—a system that regards medical care as a right and not a privilege reserved for those who can pay for it. Once Tea Partyism recedes, the Dodd-Frank bill, the auto company bailout, and perhaps even the 2009 stimulus may also be appreciated as sensible, if limited, attempts to restore public confidence at a time of economic dread. As David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times last month, “When it comes to economics, we know that a market economy with a significant government role is the only proven model of success.” Most Americans will also praise the Obama administration for making it possible for homosexuals to serve openly in the military and accepting, however slowly, the legality of same-sex marriage. One sure way for presidents to secure the blessings of posterity is to advance equal rights for a persecuted minority.

All this suggests that Obama will have a better chance of buffering his historical reputation if he returns to the bold stance he promised during his 2008 campaign and largely stuck by until the midterm election. No major proposal to create jobs or do anything else to speed economic recovery will pass through the current Congress. Still, future historians as well as voters in 2012 are more likely to praise him if he makes a serious effort to reverse the nation’s decline than for trying to assuage his critics with timid rhetoric about civility and compromise. Obama will never be another FDR, but neither should he seek to emulate the unimpressive triumph of Silent Cal.

Michael Kazin is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, which will be published August 23. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.