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Opinion

Opinion

U.S. presidency more a marathon than a sprint

December 13, 2009

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Here comes a statement of the obvious: Despite his eloquent Nobel lecture in Oslo last week, the president is struggling. The surge in Afghanistan, the economic stimulus, the financial bailout and the overhaul of the health care system may all turn out well, but at this point they are all unfinished and their progress, and Barack Obama's performance in advancing them, has been uninspiring.

Last week the Gallup Organization told us what we already intuitively knew, that Obama’s approval ratings were at a new low, at 47 percent. That is a stunning figure if you consider how high were the hopes of the American people and the president-elect only a year ago, when he still was more than a month from taking the oath of office.

Now for some perspective: The president’s average approval ratings for the month of December are at 50 percent, which puts him roughly in the league of Ronald Reagan (49 percent in December 1981) and Bill Clinton (53 percent in December 1993). Presidents who inherit economic distress when they take office in January find themselves in political distress the next December.

Obama’s ratings at this point in his presidency are far lower than those of George W. Bush (86 percent in December 2001), Richard Nixon (59 percent in December 1969) and Jimmy Carter (57 percent in December 1977). No one holds those presidencies up as models for much of anything except disappointment.

The Reagan and Clinton examples lead us to remember that the presidency is not a sprint but a marathon. Both of these former presidents won second terms and left office as popular figures who almost certainly would have won third terms had that been possible. They recovered swiftly and robustly enough to win decisive re-election victories against well-respected party stalwarts with golden resumes, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Running vs. governing

But the more important lesson of the Reagan and Clinton presidencies comes from the quality that these two presidents shared with Obama. They were spectacular candidates even if they were uncertain and unconvincing presidents in their first years. They excelled at what former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York used to call the poetry of campaigning, but were less accomplished at the prose of governing.

They learned, however. Part of it was a recognition that governing was far more complicated, and of course far more consequential, than campaigning. Governing requires deftness in stereo, if I may be permitted an antiquarian term. A president has to bring the country along with him, as candidates must do. He also has to bring the Congress along, which is a whole lot harder.

But, you may wonder, cannot a president with immense popularity get the Congress to bend to his wishes?

In principle, that’s true, though Clinton and Obama (to say nothing of Nixon and Carter) found that difficult to pull off. Members of Congress follow the election returns, as Mr. Dooley might have said, but they sometimes follow them more with resentment than with respect, at least at the beginning. They don’t fold to a president’s whims, or, in Obama’s case, to his plans to overhaul one-seventh of the biggest economy in the world.

Congresses like to rough up a president a bit, especially when they are members of the same party. Here is the Shribman corollary to the Franklin Roosevelt Doctrine: Presidents propose, Congresses dispose, public support erodes.

Patience required

Presidents rarely have patience, which is one part of the job description no one puts down, and they don’t have experience in the presidency, which of course requires the patience they also don’t possess. Our proof of Obama’s lack of patience: When all the smarty-pants told the rookie U.S. senator that he ought to wait his turn to run for president, a man three years out of the Illinois state legislature told him that he didn’t want to wait, and that his time was nigh.

Presidents in the pickle that Obama is in sometimes panic, or descend into a reverie of self-pity. But bad polls sometimes can be liberating. Indeed, the president’s miserable ratings might even be regarded as his best friend, especially since there are 35 months until the next election. (Again: Patience required. Too bad it isn’t supplied along with the helicopter, the cool cuff links, the veto pen and the nuclear weapons.)

Why liberating? Because a president down in the dumps and down in the polls has the chance to do what is right and to be himself. Both Reagan and Clinton did so, by their lights. Neither man was a pessimist, and though prone to a little self-pity, neither was imprisoned by it.

They’re only numbers

And speaking of imprisonment, it is vital that a president with low approval ratings not be imprisoned by the numbers. If he is, he will calibrate his every move to the polls — this is an occupational hazard even in good times — and in his desperation to change the numbers of his presidency will ruin the chemistry that brought him the presidency in the first place.

In Obama’s defense, he has a lousy economy and two wars to worry about, and that is before you add his own agenda, which includes health care, climate change and a menu of promises designed to change the climate in Washington.

But a man who was able to inspire great hope on the campaign trail has been unable to inspire great movement in Washington, and no one is remembered fondly by history merely for having run a great campaign. Otherwise Jimmy Carter would be in the pantheon of presidential greats right now.

Being one of the four best ex-presidents, one of Carter’s greatest accomplishments, doesn’t cut it. The other three, along with Carter, are John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover. None of the four won a second term. That is not a club Obama, so far known as a great campaigner but still striving to be a great president, wants to join.

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