he first term lives of Democratic presidents do not come with guardian angels. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton gave more than they got. Even “Yes We Can” has his hands full.
FDR faced dire circumstances. If a bad recession is a shark, depression is a piranha. Roosevelt created jobs at government expense, some useful, other frivolous. That didn’t stop American Liberty League Democrats and big business from labeling him a socialist and blaming New Deal rescue missions for betraying the right to “earn, save and acquire property.” Talk radio’s Father Charles Coughlin went further: The New Deal was “a stinking cesspool of pagan autocracy.”
Roosevelt was also lucky to be alive. A Calabria-born Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara shot at him in Miami in 1933. The mayor of Chicago and four others were killed. Zangara was convicted and executed.
FDR’s decision to slash military spending also made enemies. Generals, journalists and intellectuals looked warily at the rise of Nazi Germany and expansionist Japan. In fact, FDR’s first term salvation came less from depression-busting than from winning over union rank-and-file, which rewarded right-to-strike and collective bargaining legislation with the votes necessary to guarantee a 1936 landslide.
John Kennedy’s shattered term was edgy. If grief followed his 1963 assassination, love hadn’t preceded it. Though solving the Cuban Missile Crisis helped offset the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy was nonetheless pilloried for inconsistancy. He still carried an elitist family burden, compounded by Harvard. He spoke loudly but tread gingerly on civil rights to avoid alienating southern Democrats who formed a key wing of the party — it was Kennedy’s Texas successor Lyndon Johnson, a well-connected congressional insider, who made good on earlier pledges. Kennedy also faced muckraking resistance from J. Edgar Hoover’s potent FBI. Hoover privately derided Kennedy and his attorney general brother as in-over-their-heads egghead liberals lacking toughness. Gen. James McChrystal’s recently published criticism of President Barack Obama and his staff pales in comparison.
For some Washington insiders, Kennedy was both too slick and too young. At a time when 50 was considered the first eligible decade for leadership, he’d yet to turn 45. Kennedy’s slap-down of U.S. Steel — he forced the company to rescind price hikes, calling them inflationary — elicited vituperative language from the usually cautious Wall Street Journal: He succeeded “by naked power, by threats, by agents of the state security police.” The Communist inference was clear.
Kennedy’s Gallup Poll approval rating, a sky-high 83 percent in March 1962, stood at 56 percent a month before his murder. By comparison, Obama’s rating is now 45 percent, down 18 points in 18 months. It’s a territorial hazard.
But Jimmy Carter’s four years of dangerous living remain an object lesson in the muscle of mood shifts. Elected to erase the sullying Nixon legacy, the grinning Georgia governor encountered fierce resistance in Congress, which saw him as a rank outsider — he had succeeded a consummate insider, former House speaker Gerald Ford.
Carter’s public falling out was swift, fierce, and so-far unrivaled. Approval ratings measured in the 60 percent range in both 1976 and 1977 skidded to below 30 percent by mid-1979. While repairing Middle East problems, pulling off a remarkable diplomatic coup at Camp David in 1978, he seemed disconnected from energy crisis resentment, a crisis that had its roots in a region whose peace he was trying to secure. The restless domestic situation undermined what was an unprecedented global human rights push.
Things only got worse: A bailout of the Chrysler Corporation reignited socialist finger-pointing, while airline deregulation infuriated lobbies. Efforts to raise awareness about alternative energy sources by putting solar panels on the White House roof generated gawking ridicule from an already unhappy oil industry. These controversies in turn fed debate regarding the return of the Panama Canal, the granting of amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers, and the reining in of CIA power.
Bipartisan resentment coalesced definitively when newly-Islamic Iran occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Unwilling to provoke the Soviet Union (Iran is a Russian border state), Carter chose instead to endure foreign insults and attempt to defuse the crisis diplomatically, giving further ammunition to those who contended that despite his Navy background he had eroded the country’s already-diminished big power status. A botched Iran hostage rescue attempt all but collapsed his presidency. By the time Carter visited erupting Mount St. Helens in 1980, he’d aged a decade in four years.
Like Obama now, Carter was a brilliant, detail-oriented technocrat with a self-deprecating streak. His decency and provincialism, familiar and endearing at first, ultimately bred contempt. The zeal that accompanied his rise soon yielded extreme post-partum depression, a risk forever intrinsic to “change” movements whose romantic courtship, the campaign, bears little resemblance to the presidency, a nut-and-bolts marriage. In the annals of presidential husbandry, Carter and Obama are optimistic fatalists, one religious, the other provost-like. They are good and logical men in a restlessly illogical, success-driven nation that constantly asks its leaders to publicly and believably assert a vision of virtuous purpose. That the virtuousness itself depends on suspending disbelief doesn’t matter.
Carter tried but couldn’t do it. Obama is uneasy simply with having to perform the rite.
By contrast, Bill Clinton embraced gamesmanship. He built his 1992 victory on a relentless personal charm that was assisted politically by independent Ross Perot’s siphoning of votes from the first George Bush. Even sexual dalliances seemed to bounce off him, at least in the early going. But it wasn’t easy. He raised taxes. A health care push faltered badly. Six months into his term his approval rating stood at 37 percent.
Rightist Republicans targeted midterm Congressional elections as their redemption — just as anti-Obama forces are doing now. Their crushing win made Clinton look like a lame duck.
Cocky and self-assured, Clinton rejected both handwriting and wall. He used power of personality to plow ahead, confident with the boastfully gross immodesties that the more principled Carter and Obama disdain. This would save him. He was boosted further by the Republican Party’s choice of moderate Bob Dole, a John McCain-like figure, to run in November 1996. As the American economy reignited, Clinton’s abiding self-confidence gained traction (which explains the enormity of the rage at later betrayals; he was seen to have cheated on the collective).
Obama’s day-to-day situation remains a blur. The anointed standard-bearer of national catharsis, he has been compelled to secure an identity free and clear of the orgiastic shriek that made him president. The dilemma is that the contours of such an identity hinge less on policies than on a willingness to embody the confidence-broadcasting myth that has always lubricated the American presidency.
He resists the task. As a leader, he steers clear of (and even resents) the sentimental emotionalism that impregnated his original bid. His unflappability and resistance to caricature irritates the country’s neurotic center. One columnist refers to him as Mr. Spock. In America, logic is easily mistaken for aloofness, aloofness for eliteness, and eliteness for contempt.
In fairness, Obama governs in a distracted age whose instantly shopped-around political and personal dissections would have dumbfounded many early predecessors. He responds to the agitation around him with durable calm. But such Henry Fonda-style dependability lost meaning amid a postmodern population that confers the greatest significance on its latest exhaling, which is most often wholly visceral. Disasters (preventable) and bailouts (rewarding the greedy) are stitched into mini-Calvinist soap operas that the disenchanted — as always self-styled “common people” — use to nourish populist schisms, hence the Tea Party. They deliver and feed on the contempt that Obama eschews.
Carter and Clinton both posted approval ratings lower than Obama’s now. Of the two, Carter rode a more substantial fantasy, and a painfully short-lived one. The subsequent dream-weaver was a trained reassurer, Ronald Reagan. Not surprisingly, he won twice with ease.
Obama Democrats are starting to sense the extent of the post-coital disillusionment. Ardor is at a standstill. The United States might be on the verge of adopting an instant messaging model of the presidency, with a single term becoming the rule, or even bracing itself for the eventual creation of a multiparty state in the European vein.
Or maybe Obama’s heraldic ascent and bridging of racial and ethic divides will in fact generate an equal and opposite counter-reformation that puts rough town criers ahead of both parties and their nominees, anointing former bartenders as heads of state to ensure oil leak-proof Hollywood Endings.