Over the last couple decades America has settled into an uneasy truce with itself, as presidents of both parties propose new ideas and promise a new way of doing business but eventually lose their popular mandate.
Prior to President Obama, the poster child for this phenomenon was George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush frittered away an 89 percent approval rating just after the liberation of Kuwait from the clutches of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In less than two years his political fortunes declined to such a degree that he drew less than 40 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election, yielding office to President Clinton.
In time, Clinton’s leadership was questioned so much that his party lost the majority in the House of Representatives two years after his election. After Clinton left office, George W. Bush managed re-election but spent his entire bank of political capital and popularity chasing Osama bin Laden around the Middle East while engaging in a little nation building along the way.
All these case studies reflect a simple fact: America sours quickly to new leadership if things progress in the same old way.
In President Obama’s case, pundits like to point out that his approval numbers are relatively in line with Ronald Reagan’s during the early days of his tenure. As in the present day, the first part of Reagan’s term was marked with a poor economy and high unemployment – before last October, the last time unemployment reached double digits was during a correspondent period in Reagan’s presidency.
Yet history shows that once Reagan’s economic prescription of lowering tax rates took hold his popularity surged, with the best evidence being an absolute electoral slaughter of the hapless Walter Mondale. On the other hand, President Obama’s policy accomplishments to date range in public perception from skepticism whether the stimulus has actually worked to outright hostility about the passage of Obamacare and progress in cleaning up the oil from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.
Perhaps more than any other president in recent memory, though, President Obama suffers from being thin-skinned. While he may say from time to time that “the buck stops here” it’s usually lost in a litany of finger-pointing and blame shifting, with a favorite target being opposition Republicans. (Having advisers who proclaim we should never let a crisis go to waste or that we should put our boot on the throat of particular businesses isn’t much of a help either.)
People who followed President Obama’s cult of personality during his campaign and remain loyal to him make up a larger and larger portion of those who approve of his performance. Others who questioned his qualifications or didn’t like those policies he ran on make up a continually growing segment of the opposition, leaving less and less room for ambivalence. America may be fortunate that there’s not an issue like slavery to divide up the union.
To be a good leader, the key qualification is to go in a direction which people would eventually like to be led, convincing them to leave the safety of inertia. Of course, the leader is the one who gets the slings and arrows but shrugs them off in pursuit of a cause greater than self. One problem our President has is selling the idea that he’s not the one with the most to gain from the direction he’s attempting to take us. The American people keep attempting to put on the brakes and turn things around but the only way to get this leader to listen is to outpoll his followers at the ballot box.
Michael Swartz used to practice architecture but now is a Maryland-based freelance writer and blogger whose work can be found in a number of outlets, including Liberty Features Syndicate. This piece debuted June 18.