Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post frets that it may not be possible for any president to succeed in the modern world of politics. Did Cillizza raise this question when George W. Bush’s presidency encountered serious difficulty? I don’t recall him doing so.
But then Bush wasn’t as gifted as Obama, in the estimation of Cillizza and pretty much the rest of the MSM. When a president deemed as intelligent, sophisticated, nuanced, and temperamentally sound as Obama runs into trouble, it’s natural for the MSM to ask whether anyone can handle the job.
And did I mention gravitas? Because Obama possesses mucho gravitas, or so Cillizza assured us during the 2008 campaign, based on some mushy comments the candidate delivered in Jordan. At the time, I called this “wish fulfillment journalism.”
If one leaves the world of wish fulfillment behind, it becomes obvious that a president can succeed in the modern world of politics. Indeed, a president who presides over a well-functioning economy will be hard-pressed not to succeed, if success is defined as remaining reasonably popular.
Even George W. Bush remained popular enough to be re-elected in 2004. He was subject to non-stop media criticism. Moreover, the U.S. had not found WMD in Iraq and our military situation there was trending downwards. But the economy was strong and Bush had struck back hard against al Qaeda. This was deemed good enough for government work until the situation in Iraq truly deteriorated.
Cillizza argues that the modern president must function in an environment in which “news is being made — and covered — literally every minute of the day across the world” and in which the president “is forced to read and react to virtually all of it.” Couple this constant stream of news “with the fact that Twitter, blogs and cable television turn every slip of the tongue, misstatements or gaffe into a mountain — ‘the private sector is doing fine’ being a prime, recent example — and it’s clear that the idea that the president can drive the hourly, daily or weekly message of his choosing feels outdated.”
Here Cilizza fails to see the forest for the trees that are his stock-in-trade (he also is clearly unhappy that Obama has taken a hit for his ludicrous statement about how the private sector is faring). Sure, plenty of noise surrounds the president. But most voters hear very little of it, and are fully capable of discounting what they happen to hear. When a president commits gaffes, or when mini-scandals arise, in the context of a well-performing economy, voters yawn and partisans moan about “the teflon presidency.” When they occur in an economy like this one, pundits overstate the extent to which they contribute to the president’s woes.
The real problem is that it’s becoming more difficult for presidents to preside over a good economy. Good economic policies can, of course, influence economic performance, though arguably not to a great extent in the short run. But some of the biggest economic drivers consist of forces beyond a president’s control. And these forces are increasingly adverse.
STEVE adds: The historical ignorance of Cillizza and other media chin pullers is astounding. One of our commenters below has some good chestnuts from the Carter era. Here’s my summary of how it played out in The Age of Reagan:
The popular historian Barbara Tuchman expressed the thinking of the intellectual elite: “The job of President is too difficult for any single person because of the complexity of the problems and the size of government. Maybe some form of plural executive is needed, such as they have in Switzerland.” U.S. News and World Report wondered: “Perhaps the burdens have become so great that, over time, no President will be judged adequate in the eyes of most voters.” Columnist Joseph Kraft wrote on election eve: “As the country goes to the polls in the 47th national election, the Presidency as an institution is in trouble. It has become, as Vice President Mondale said in a recent interview, the ‘fire hydrant of the nation.’” Newsweek echoed this sentiment: “The Presidency has in some measure defeated the last five men who have held it—and has persuaded some of the people who served them that it is in danger of becoming a game nobody can win. . . the job as now constituted is or is becoming impossible, no matter who holds it.” Robert Wright and Fred Greenstein wrote that “Recent history offers little cause for optimism about Ronald Reagan’s chances of governing the American people to their satisfaction.” Godfrey Hodgson wrote that Reagan “has aroused expectations that he cannot fulfill. Disappointment will turn into disillusionment, and excessive expectations will curdle into unreasonable resentment. That has happened, in one way or another, to each of the last half dozen presidents. Why should Ronald Reagan be an exception?” Political scientist Theodore Lowi concurred: “The presidency has become an impossible job. . . because the presidency has become too big, even for the likes of FDR.” Elsewhere Lowi wrote that “The probability of [presidential] failure is always tending toward 100 percent.” James MacGregor Burns, author of The Deadlock of Democracy, wrote: “The greatest problem of America in modern times is the despair and disillusion of thoughtful people with the apparent incapacity to solve our problems under and antiquated governmental system, booby-trapped with vetoes, and a purposely designed self-limiting division of power.” Everett Carll Ladd wrote in Fortune magazine that “The experience of recent years strongly suggests that personal ability and character, while vitally important, are insufficient to assure success to a contemporary presidency. For the institutional setting quite simply has become adverse. A kind of ‘vicious circle’ of declining performance has been initiated.” The big question, for Ladd, was: “Can anybody do it?” Surveying the field of candidates who wanted to succeed Jimmy Carter, Ladd thought not, and worried about the implications: “The consequences of yet one more failure in this unique office would impose appalling stress on the whole political system.” Like Tuchman, Ladd thought the office was no longer equal to the times. “The institutional resources available to the President, relative to what he is expected to do, remain seriously deficient.”