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The era of the epically failed presidency

When President Obama’s term expires in January 2017, we will have completed roughly one-sixth of the 21st century. How will the American political history of the period be remembered?

Quite likely, it will be remembered, fairly or not, for two badly botched presidencies — one of them mainly for a botched war; the other mainly for a botched overhaul of our health care system.

President Bush initiated a war that he hoped would help transform the Middle East for the better. The war went well at first. But then events failed to validate its primary stated justification — the alleged existence of substantial Iraqi stockpiles of WMD.

After that, the military situation got out of hand and American casualties soared. Yet Bush continued to pursue a failing strategy for several years. He finally changed his strategy with good results, but the Middle East does not appear to have been transformed for the better.

President Obama was at least as ambitious on the domestic front as Bush had been in the Middle East. He and his party set out to remake the nation’s health insurance and thereby to transform health care, a realm of paramount significance to our personal well-being. Unlike Bush, who had substantial Democrat support for the Iraq war when he commenced it, Obama had no Republican support for Obamacare, not even from Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe.

Obamacare was perverse in its concept, flawed in its drafting, and famously botched in its implementation. As Peter Wehner says, its critics have been correct so far about its adverse impact on jobs, premiums, deductibles, and cost. Obama’s signature promise about the ability to keep one’s health insurance plan has been exposed as a lie.

It seems clear, moreover, that Obamacare will not come close to accomplishing what it was intended to do — reduce the number of uninsured Americans to a bare minimum. Indeed, the indications are that most of those who are obtaining insurance under Obamacare have done so in response to the demise of their pre-existing plan.

These, I think, will be the prevailing narratives for the signature initiatives of the two presidents elected thus far in the 21st century. I take issue with portions of the Bush narrative and would caveat other parts of it. Partisan Democrats will dispute the prevailing narrative on Obamacare. But in the public mind, I’m confident that both narratives are as I have stated them.

And there is one more key narrative. Both the Bush and Obama presidencies are considered botched when it comes to the economy. Bush is held responsible, unfairly for the most part in my view, for the near-financial collapse and the major accompanying recession. Obama is increasingly, and properly up to a point, viewed as responsible for the pathetic recovery, which falls far short of the predictions of the president’s own economic team.

Similarly, Bush and Obama are both considered responsible for the explosion of public debt that has marked this century. The debt is a big deal for the public and is likely to become a much bigger deal as its chickens come home to roost.

This era of presidencies viewed as epically failed is not unique in our history, or even in my lifetime. The Johnson-Nixon-Carter presidencies fit the same description.

America responded to those failed presidencies by electing a president who wanted to take us in a new direction. Will it do so again in 2016? And will that direction be remotely as sound as the one that Ronald Reagan pointed to?

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