I have been thinking a lot about the difference between failed and successful presidencies lately, mostly because I so desperately want President Obama to be on the successful side.
First, some definitional terms. For me, a successful presidency means the following:
1. That they are re-elected. I know some of my high-minded readers may think this is crass, but it certainly matters whether American voters think well enough if you to give you a second term, and it's hard to really get a lot that's lasting done in only four years. I can't think of a modern president that I would call a successful president who only served one term.
2. That they actually get something significant and lasting done in terms of policy agenda.
3. That their policies work reasonably well in terms of overall economic prosperity and foreign policy.
4. That they end their term in reasonably good standing with the American public.
More on who do and do not fit this definition, and some caveats, in the extended entry.
Looking at presidents over the modern era, the last half-century, the presidents who got re-elected (not including LBJ, who had served less than a year after JFK's assassination) were Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush. The first and last of those presidencies ended in humiliation and failure in spite of the re-election, because of a combination of political and policy meltdowns, and because of corruption. For all of my dislike of Reagan's policies, and for all the damage they did to the country over the long run, I have to admit that his was a successful presidency in that he achieved most of his big policy priorities and ended with the country still feeling pretty positive about him. Clinton, in spite of my disappointment the lack of big change he accomplished, can also be rated a success: the country was relatively prosperous and at peace throughout his tenure, and he had a 60% approval rating not only as he left office but for most of his last five years in office. The other failed presidencies of the last 50 years include:
-Johnson, who in spite of the greatest domestic achievements of the last 70+ years, destroyed himself and his party on the shoals of the Vietnam War, and chose not to run for re-election after Gene McCarthy's primary challenge almost beat him in New Hampshire.
-Ford, whose economic policies were terrible, and who was almost beaten by Reagan in a primary fight.
-Carter, the most conservative Democrat on economic policies since Grover Cleveland, failed at reviving the economy, and was badly damaged by Ted Kennedy's primary challenge.
-George H.W. Bush also failed economically. He alienated the conservative movement by breaking his no new taxes pledge, and was badly winded by Buchanan's primary challenge.
What happened in every one of these cases was that the president started with a lot of goodwill and support from the general public, but when they ran into trouble later in their term, the base turned on them, and once that happened, it was impossible to contain the damage. The reason for this is simple: your base is who fights for you and defends you when you are in political trouble, and if they aren't backing your play, you get cut to the bone -- the damage goes deep. Trouble comes to every president, but you can survive it if you have troops on the ground who keep defending you and fighting your battles for you.
The Clinton presidency is instructive in this regard. In spite of the occasional issue disagreements and rhetorical New Democrat positioning, the Clinton White House worked the Democratic base groups very hard. As the (unofficial) liaison to progressives in the Clinton White House, I lived that strategy: we talked to our progressive friends constantly even when -- especially when -- we disagreed with them; we brought them to the White House for one meeting and event after another; and in the worse days of the Clinton Presidency, those first several months of 1995 when it seemed like Gingrich as going to roll us, we stood up to Gingrich, first on issues like the school lunch program and then on the biggest fight of all, the 1995 budget. Progressive groups rallied to our defense, and when the dust settled from the government shutdowns, we won the budget showdown, and with it, the 1996 election.
Will Barack Obama be a successful president? I believe he will, but he is going to run into big trouble spots down the road -- every president does, and in spite of Obama's political skills, he will too. The economy may have stabilized, but it's not going to start getting appreciably better for regular folks anytime soon. Those massively complex legislative battles coming down the line are going to make the stimulus battle look like child's play, and will have lots of ugly moments. I believe the president has to do three things to be a successful president:
1. Have some big wins on his legislative agenda.
2. Get the economy to start picking up for real people, not just the balance sheets of our stabilizing financial industry.
3. Keep the base excited and ready to both sell his agenda, and defend him when the trouble comes.
None of this is easy, but President Obama has formidable political skills. I have confidence that he can succeed in spite of all the potential pitfalls at all three things if he focuses on getting them done. He has to deliver on the economy for regular working people; he has to fight through the special interest and right-wing opposition and get health care reform, bank regulation, climate change legislation, and immigration reform passed; and he has to keep his political base motivated to keep fighting on his behalf. A tall order, but if he succeeds, he will go down as the most successful president since FDR.