Hurricane Katrina. Hostage crisis. Tet Offensive.
Is Barack Obama’s presidency at a similar tipping point?
The relevance of the question exemplifies the gravity of Obama’s crisis. Obama is learning the lesson of presidents before him.
‘Poor Ike,” Harry Truman said of the incoming president, “it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this, do that,’ and nothing will happen.’
Presidents are hostage to events, goes the old political axiom. But that’s a half-truth. Presidencies rise and fall far more by their response to great events than to the event itself.
“Presidents are ultimately judged by how they handle the unexpected,” presidential historian Richard Norton Smith wrote in an e-mail exchange. “JFK may have blown the Bay of Pigs but more than recovered a year later in Cuba…. Just as he moved away from his cautious approach to civil rights as newspaper pictures and TV reports from Birmingham – the equivalent of today’s unstopped pipe at the bottom of the Gulf – made him realize that the presidency is, indeed, ultimately a place of moral leadership.”
This issue comes down to presidential leadership. The British Petroleum crisis clearly placed Obama’s presidency in crisis several weeks back Yet the status quo endured. The media pile-on ensued. Impressions solidified. This is what happens when the president does not meet the moment.
History tells us how it happens. Perceptions contrast with promises. The measure of the president appears smaller than the problems before him. Presidencies, subtly and at similar junctures, turn south for a long winter.
“The good presidents are able to basically survive these kinds of events, rarely are they able control of them. They find strong political and strategic responses,” said Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer. “The bad presidents make the crisis seem greater than the presidency.”
This turning point is often gradual – not made by one event – and, like all crossroads, clearest in the rear view mirror. But when the perception goes from good to bad on great events, the entire presidency goes bad.
Obama’s leadership problem did not begin with BP. There was the coolness to Wall Street malfeasance. The sure victory of financial reform sidelined. The new New Deal that never was. The healthcare bill that came instead and in time took hold of his presidency. The president seemingly aligned with all the big boogiemen of the day – big business and big government.
The change agent personified the establishment. The post-partisan went to the mat for a hyper-partisan issue. The candidate who won his majority with the recession focused his mandate elsewhere. The man who promised new politics partook in the ugly old politics, from healthcare’s Cornhusker kickback to the Joe Sestak incident. And now, the competent candidate haunted by perceptions of incompetent presidential leadership.
Somewhere, along the way, was Obama’s Bert Lance affair. Jimmy Carter’s budget director was legally exonerated from a financial scandal. But the issue was ethics. Critical weeks passed. In Watergate’s shadow, the candidate who ran on good ethics was now a president tainted by bad ethics.
The hostage crisis cemented what began with Lance. But it’s also how the hostage crisis bled on, like George H.W. Bush’s recession and like too many of Obama’s crises. Healthcare bleeds for a year. The jobs crisis still bleeds. Now this oil crisis, bleeding past day 60.
And like the Lance affair, critical weeks have indeed passed. Political triage might be too late. The time with the victims too little. The president’s emotive distance from the tragedy too great. The aloofness too constant. The expressions of anger and empathy too contrived. The crisis too far along.
FDR most famously took command of like times. His response to the crisis won the public – and historic gains in the midterm elections – despite the Great Depression languishing on. It was not the solution but the response. In Roosevelt, as Zelizer put it, “Americans saw someone from the White House doing as much as anyone could see possible. That’s in contrast to the current administration on the oil spill and, many would say, on jobs.”
Obama is flailing. The feckless image haunts him. Meanwhile, from the Korean peninsula to Iran to fragile world markets, myriad potential crises loom.