Monday, July 12, 2010

What A Swell Party This Is

"[S]tyle is important in a president, and Americans react to it in unpredictable ways. ...

"The mystery of the American presidency is why and how different occupants of the White House relate to Americans — and how they defy expectations and experience."

David Shribman
Pittsburgh Post–Gazette

I must confess, I don't know much about Pittsburgh Post–Gazette columnist David Shribman's political philosophy.

But I do know that I've been reading his stuff recently, and he seems very thoughtful.

Anyway, over the weekend he addressed Barack Obama's slippage in the polls and how that may affect both this year's midterm elections and the president's own bid for a second term just a couple of years from now.

The study of the presidency has always been a hobby of mine — and when I say "always," I'm not kidding. I don't remember how my fascination with the presidency began. I just know that it has been an interest of mine as long as I can recall.

When I was in first grade, I had memorized the presidents in the order in which they served — even though it would be several years before we began talking in school about the presidents and their roles in American history. I don't recall how I learned this — except that, when I was a child, I remember having various sets of presidents' cards (which were a lot like baseball and football cards), coloring books that were devoted to the presidents and things like that.

Perhaps I memorized the presidents after repeated, benign exposure to those things — similar to the way someone learns the procedure for saving a person who is choking on something by casually looking at a public service poster in the employee break room day after day.

I can still recite the presidents, too, even though there are more presidents to remember now than there were when I was 6.

And I'm always fascinated when I read something that compares different presidencies from different eras facing different issues.

In a way, it's kind of the argument that can never be resolved, much like the debates that sometimes break out over something like whether Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds is the greatest ball player ever. Different eras, incomparable conditions.

And, at first glance, that is what this appears to be. After all, modern presidents are more visible on a regular basis than their predecessors a century or more ago — thanks to TV and internet.

But there's more to it than that.

Shribman writes, "No political scientist's algorithm can explain why, for example, the erudition of Kennedy seemed appealing while the apparent elitism of Obama seems alienating. There is no explanation why the patrician patois of FDR seemed right for an age of deprivation while the gin–and–tonic and tennis–whites style of George H.W. Bush seemed discordant even before the economy turned sour at the end of the 41st president's term."

Based on that, wouldn't you think there is some sort of "good old days" syndrome at work here? Well, not really. Shribman concedes that the chances of any one person actually having contact with a president in the first century and a half of this nation's existence were virtually nil. How can one relate to a president one never sees?

And Shribman admits that point, observing that "two early 20th–century presidents who likely could not have related to 90% of the country were able to get elected to the White House ([the extremely obese] William Howard Taft and [the extremely academic] Woodrow Wilson)."

Both men were president long before television came along, as were some presidents who, Shribman writes, "on the surface might seem to have been best able to relate to the public" but apparently failed to do so:

"Ulysses S. Grant, the people's general from Galena, Ill., and Warren G. Harding, the hard–drinking and hard–loving son of Blooming Grove, Ohio, are regarded as among the worst presidents." he points out.

I don't know what is behind Obama's dramatic decline in the public opinion polls. Shribman suggests a disconnect between the voters and the president. Of the Obama campaign in 2008, he writes, "Theatrically and rhetorically it was almost perfect. Technically it was innovative. Politically it was sure–footed."

But, he continues, "[N]othing about it prepared Obama for the presidency and nothing about it prepared the American people for Obama's presidency. On the contrary."

Perhaps Obama's policies ultimately will be proven, indisputably, to have been the right ones. But that's kind of hard for average Americans — especially the unemployed ones — to grasp when the number of jobs being added to the economy each month doesn't keep up with the increase in the working–age population, never mind the folks who used to work in the past but haven't worked in a long time.

And the unemployment rate continues to hover near 10% nationally. That's nearly half again what it was when Obama was elected — and nearly 25% higher than Obama and his advisers assured voters that it would ever be under his leadership.

Now, he must try to persuade voters that his policies are right. They just need more time. That's been a tough sell in the past, and Obama's task is made even more difficult by his somewhat clumsy efforts to prove a negative. Jobs have been saved, he insists, but that is tough to demonstrate satisfactorily.

Meanwhile, he seems to feel he can recapture the magic of his 2008 campaign — when he had no track record as president and was himself on the ballot — in an environment that is decidedly more hostile to him than it was two years ago.

It is hostile, not because of racism as his most dedicated supporters would like to think (although there certainly may be an element of that) because that is irrational, but primarily because unemployment is too high and the national debt is too great and two unpopular wars continue to be fought and oil continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico (although there appears to be some optimism that the new cap that BP placed on the leak today will be effective) and a host of other problems — some of which a president can influence, some he can't.

Right now, Obama seems intent upon influencing the midterm races, but he hasn't been especially successful so far in 2010. Like many presidents during tough times, his presence may not always be welcomed by those in his own party.

But, apparently, he was welcomed by two Democratic Senate candidates whose prospects in November look grim.

First Obama went to Nevada. On the surface, Nevada should be friendly territory. Obama received more than 55% of the state's votes when he was elected president. But unemployment was just under 8% in those days. It's close to twice that now.

Nevertheless, Obama came to Nevada to campaign for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces a considerable challenge from Republican Sharron Angle.

"Welcome back, Mr. President," editorialized the Las Vegas Review Journal. "Your economic policies suck."

Then he came to Missouri, a state he narrowly lost in 2008, where Robin Carnahan, the daughter of the late Mel Carnahan (who was killed in a plane crash while campaigning for the Senate 10 years ago), faces what appears to be an uphill climb in her bid to turn back Republican Rep. Roy Blunt.

I've heard some people argue that it isn't in the president's job description to see to it that his fellow Americans can thrive because of his actions, that jobs are available, that the obstacles to the American Dream are removed from their path.

Perhaps it isn't expressed that way in the Constitution, but I would argue that Americans' expectations have been higher at least since the days of Ronald Reagan, who said, as he campaigned for re–election in 1984, "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts ... And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

If Obama was seriously interested in his party retaining its majorities in the House and Senate, he would have been pushing a visible pro–job creation agenda from the beginning. Instead, he has dawdled and allowed things to get totally out of control. Now he's trying to make up lost ground in the last four months before the midterm elections.

It may be too late for that. Just yesterday, the president's press secretary fretted that enough House seats were in jeopardy to flip control of that chamber in November — a prospect that most people have rejected because Republicans would need to win some 40 seats to achieve it.

Well, that's about what they needed in 1994, when they wound up winning more than 50 House seats and seized control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

In pursuit of what could turn out to be a lost cause, Obama may need to spend a lot of time working House districts that are traditionally more center–right in their politics but elected left–leaning representatives in the Democratic years of 2006 and 2008.

And his help may be quietly refused by some Democratic incumbents who have crunched the numbers in their districts and determined that their chances of survival are greater if he isn't around. Obama may have had a Midas touch in 2008, but more and more he seems to have a tin ear today.

Hope and change made for a good campaign slogan two years ago. In 2010, "reality" is what it is all about.

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