Make no bones about it--what we have been witnessing these past several months has been nothing short of the unraveling of the Obama presidency. “Don’t be so sure,” his defenders will insist. “Reagan and Clinton saw their parties take a dive in the first off-year election of their presidencies, only to recover and win easy re-elections. What reasons have you to think that Obama’s situation will be any different?” In a word, plenty.
First off, neither Reagan nor Clinton, nor any other president in either memory or history began hemorrhaging so many senior advisers so close to an approaching election. The others preferred to do their housekeeping afterward and in a way that made the presidents look like they were the ones making the decisions. Rapid and often unexplained departures such as the ones we have witnessed at the highest of levels are indicative of an administration in disarray. Those who lost major policy battles or personality fights wanted out before they became identified with programs they opposed or do not believe will work.
That so many chose to announce their own departures and the dates of their exits rather than allow the president to do it was not a positive sign. What other president in memory would have allowed his chief of staff to hold Washington and the political community nationwide in suspense for weeks as he publicly contemplated his next career move? The primary role demand of that job is to subordinate one’s own ego and career prospects to the president’s. Just ask Jim Baker. Other presidents would have showed Rahm Emanuel the door last winter, when stories appeared that attributed Obama’s difficulties in passing healthcare and other legislation to his failure to listen to his extraordinarily brilliant deputy.
Warren G. Harding may have been incompetent, as historians like to say, but he certainly attracted more loyal help.
And speaking of incompetence, what are we to conclude when a president, a self-proclaimed constitutional expert, sends his principle messenger on television to assert that the Chamber of Commerce committed the crime of funneling funds raised from foreign sources into congressional campaigns without a shred of evidence? (Axelrod’s “how do you know they didn’t?” proved too much even for a Washington press corps that once acted as if it thought Obama could do no wrong.)
Second, Reagan, arguably as ideological a president in his own way as Obama is in his, had two things going for him that Obama lacks. Reagan never stepped “out of character.” In good times, as well as bad, he always appeared presidential. It is inconceivable that Reagan would ever have transformed himself into the circus barker Obama came to resemble while on the stump in Philadelphia. As he blamed everyone else for the nation’s difficulties, the once aspiring “post-partisan” president appeared more a part of the problem than its solution. Like it or not, he now “owns” that nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, the war in Afghanistan, and all he his team confided to Bob Woodward.
Bill Clinton, having rescued his party from the clutches of a “progressive wing” that had lost it three successive presidential elections, seemed to go off the rails when he deferred to it within weeks of his election. After voters took corrective action, the “old Clinton” returned and with a vengeance. The “Comeback Kid” shrewdly seized upon the GOP’s winning control of Congress as an opportunity to remind his “base” that he was all that stood in the way of Republican and conservative control of the executive and legislative branches. That allowed him to approach the Republicans with his party united behind him. Clinton’s success at that kept him in office in the face of impeachment.
Reagan, with even greater grace, left his base disappointed too. Somewhere among my clutter, rests a button proclaiming, “Let Reagan be Reagan,” a plea to the president to resist all those purported “squishes” around him (like Baker, George Schultz, Mike Deaver, and the first lady) who thought he might come out just fine “doing business” with Gorbachev, pulling troops out of Lebanon, and making peace with the New Deal.
For the better part of a year, Obama has given the impression that he would rather be “right” in the eyes of his base than president. (Unlike Henry Clay, he chose not to do it by investing heavily in infrastructure, but in government workers.) If voters come to sense that Obama is serious about this, they may help him out by taking the job off of his hands. This presumes, of course, that his fellow Democrats do not do it before they get a chance. (Paging Margaret Thatcher.)
Democrats are a less forgiving lot than Republicans when it comes to sticking with leaders who drove them off a cliff (or as the president likes to say, “into a ditch”). Bush’s rising numbers--to say nothing about his initial rise after voters turned his father out of office--attest to this. His ratings should climb even higher when 43 embarks on his long-awaited book tour days after the election. Then will come the dedication of his presidential library, followed by speculation about another Bush or two in the nation’s future.
On the other side of the partisan ledger, Bill Clinton remains the only Democratic president elected after World War II to win re-election. Truman, Johnson, and Carter were undone in part by vigorous efforts within their own party to “dump” them either in the midst of unpopular wars, poor handling of the economy, or growing perceptions that they were just not up to the job. Only Carter persisted in battling it out through the convention and beyond. Judging from his recently published diary and subsequent interviews, he resents Ted Kennedy for daring to challenge him. Come the day after the election, leaks will begin to surface about internal Democratic discussions about Obama’s future and their own.
With Republicans going into 2012, unlike 1968 (Nixon) and 1980 (Reagan), with no clear favorite on the horizon, this time a Democratic challenger may have a chance of both winning the nomination and going all the way. And with Obama, the erstwhile “change” candidate, appearing more and more like just another politician--and a failed one at that--they have a well-seasoned candidate as well as a potential president waiting in the wings. Has anyone noticed how quiet James Carville has been lately?