There are a number of ways to judge the success of a presidency. There is the historical perspective that takes a great many decades to determine with any accuracy. There is whether the president was able to win re-election, always an important indicator of success. And, there is whether, when the president is term-limited, the country swings wildly in the opposite political direction when picking the president’s successor. It is possible, as we’ve just seen, for a president to win re-election yet leave office with abysmally low ratings and a successor that stands for just about everything that he didn’t. In President Bush’s case, I would argue that his winning re-election was not so much an indicator of his popularity or “success”, but a complete lack of enthusiasm for his opponent. The Democrats in John Kerry simply didn’t give the country a choice it found acceptable–better the devil you know. That Bush left office deeply unpopular and with a successor who is his polar opposite in almost every way–personality, intellect, political philosophy–says something about how deeply unpopular, and I would argue “successful” George W. Bush was.
Having last week finally seen the complete unveiling of Barack Obama–no, not a centrist but a true blue Democratic liberal–it is interesting to speculate on how the American public is ultimately going to judge its new leader. The 2010 mid-term elections will give us a first indication. Then will come the 2012 general election. Finally, should Obama be re-elected in 2012, there will be the election of his successor in 2016.
I’m not going to speculate on outcome. I have no clue at this point. I am going to suggest scenarios, however, that may give us some indicators. Let me start by observing that it is entirely possible that by 2012 the bloom will be off the Obama rose but that the Republicans will still be in such philosophical disarray (which includes, in my book, clinging to the southern conservative model of Republicanism) that anyone the Republicans select will be doomed, ala John Kerry in 2004. Of course, if Obama is despised at that point, which I doubt, it could be that almost any Republican could be elected. Let’s hope this is not the case for the sake of our country.
Another scenario is to posit Barack Obama as the Democratic Ronald Reagan. By this I mean a someone who, while clearly a darling of the ideological extremes of his party, is also able to capture a significant amount of independents and centrist members of the opposing party. To accomplish this it is important that one be charismatic (check), a great communicator (check), and I would argue one more thing. It will take someone who while talking enough of line to appease his ideological base, delivers policies that are mainstream enough that they don’t alienate the center, where the majority of American electorate resides (unknown).
Now this is where it gets tricky with Barack Obama. He has announced to the delight of his party’s liberal base a very “liberal” agenda. How will centrist America take to this? I would argue that one thing that Ronald Reagan had going for him, that Obama does not, was a Congress that was never entirely in his camp. In other words, Ronald Reagan never experienced having a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate. While he had the Senate eventually, he never had a Republican House majority. I would argue that this required him to moderate his course and deliver a product that was less ideologically conservative than it might otherwise have been and than what he might otherwise have preferred. Given that most of the electorate is in the center of the political spectrum, this need to moderate arguably inured to Reagan’s political advantage. Ronald Reagan both won a resounding re-election campaign in 1984 and left office in 1988 highly popular, replaced by his vice-president.
Using the Ronald Reagan model, Barach Obama doesn’t have the barrier (I would also say “advantage”) that Ronald Reagan had. Unlike Reagan, Obama has healthy majorities in both the House and the Senate. The only thing he does have that is arguably somewhat similar is a non-filibuster proof Senate. That could well yet serve him well by holding him back from delivering a more liberal ideological product than he might prefer, but it could also save his political neck. Since it is less of an obstacle than was Ronald Reagan’s obstacle, it may, however, prove less beneficial.
Of course, a third alternative exists. America is indeed ready to make a major political shift from center-right to left/center-left. This could be aided by an economy that is among the worst in the country’s history. This will depend upon when the economy recovers and which party gets the credit.
I am disinclined to believe the American electorate is radically re-aligning itself to the left. It will tolerate health care reform and education reform, but only so long as it delivers, on budget. It will not tolerate huge deficits and massive new unfunded entitlement programs. It will not tolerate massive new taxes, including taxes masquerading as greatly higher bills for electricity caused by an ill-conceived cap and trade system. It will also tire of energy program that fails to accomplish its stated objectives (likely, as I pointed out in my posting yesterday).
The bottom line is that this story has yet to unfold. It could go in many ways. It will interestingto watch. It will also be scary, as the country has so much at stake. Had this been normal times, with an economy that was anywhere withing the range of normal, this liberal experiment that Obama’s proposing might have been an interesting and valuable exercise for the country. In times of economic crisis, it seems rash and dangerous. Let’s hope for the best case scenario, for failure could be unthinkably bad. Let’s hope that Barack Obama does, indeed, turn out to be a liberal Ronald Reagan.