More than one-fourth of Barack Obama’s presidency is yet to come. But the verdicts on his regime already tumble forth. While some give him high marks, others lament his disappointed ambitions, which track his drooping job-approval ratings. Obama’s supposed lack of zest for retail politicking and his isolation from the allies he needs in Washington — in short, his dismal introversion — figure large in these critiques. So does Obama’s alleged failure to grasp “greatness” through the force of some elusive quality called historic “character.”
Yet much of what we hear is untrue. Obama’s tattered approval ratings are due to the intensified partisanship of our era. His forthcoming (likely) political setback in Congress will be consistent with historic tendencies. His presidency in some ways is in better shape than those of his predecessors at similar points in their regimes. His major failing is not a lack of gregariousness or a deficit of character.
Consider how previous two-term presidents were doing at similar points in their tenures. In 2006, George W. Bush’s popularity was cratering, as discontent over the Iraq war crested. In 1998, Bill Clinton was nearing impeachment by the U.S. House. In October 1986, Ronald Reagan’s presidency started to unravel, as a downed plane in Nicaragua sparked the Iran-contra revelations that could have led to Reagan’s impeachment. With the exception of Clinton — whose congressional pursuers repulsed much of the public — these and other two-termers saw the opposition realize major gains in the elections six years into their presidencies.
In short, these other guys were in some serious trouble. Bush, Clinton and Reagan, each in a different way, were gravely compromised by either scandal or policy disaster. Obama has committed no comparable misdeed (which is not the same as saying he has made no serious errors). The only reason the Republican-controlled House has not started impeachment proceedings is probably that there is nothing on which the GOP can touch him.
Obama’s low approval ratings are due to historically unmatched hostility from the opposition. This far into their own presidencies, Bush enjoyed job approval from about 15 percent of Democrats and Reagan had it from around 25 percent of Democrats. Clinton — despite his looming impeachment — had it from 25 percent of Republicans! But Obama has the support of 10 percent or less of Republicans.
Whether you think this results from Obama’s own partisanship depends on how you define partisanship. His policies have been rather moderate. His adoption of Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan as his national model and his embrace of drone strikes in numerous countries, as well as the escalating war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, are prime cases in point. On the other hand, Obama has not made the repudiation of his own party’s core constituencies a pillar of his presidency, as did his Democratic predecessor, Clinton. Recall Clinton’s repeal of Aid to Families With Dependent Children and his rhetorical attacks on labor unions during the fight over NAFTA. Clinton gained Republican support with such moves. Obama has refrained from throwing vulnerable segments of his party’s base under the bus for political gain.
Obama does have character traits that have hampered his leadership. (His lack of sociability seems irrelevant; few recent presidents have mingled with the D.C. social set.) Obama has shown an unwavering faith in the (supposedly) meritocratic elite of Washington and Wall Street; he has failed to convert the country’s disgust with these powerful few into political capital. In short, Obama lacks the instinct of the demagogue. His hard-earned self-restraint, as a black man in America, no doubt plays a role in his temperamental coldness toward crass political exploitation. If he had wanted to make more of his historic moment, he might have needed a less-cool approach.
Nonetheless, as Obama nears the three-quarters mark of his presidency, and while he may soon be saddled with a GOP Senate and House both, his caution has kept him from disabling himself politically with self-inflicted wounds. He may be freer to pursue his vision than many previous presidents have been during their seventh and eighth years.
Doug Rossinow is a professor of history at Metropolitan State University. His book “The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s” will be released in February 2015.