by Mike Kimel
In my lifetime, the following Presidents have run for re-election: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, GHW Bush, Clinton, GW Bush, and now, Obama. What is striking about this list is that of this crowd, only three: Nixon, Reagan and Clinton appeared to be at all successful by the time they started running for re-election from any objective point of view.
Nixon may have been the most successful of the three by the end of his first term. Inflation was still a year away, as was the collapse of Bretton Woods and the Oil Embargo. On the foreign policy front, Vietnam… well, that wasn’t pretty, but there was the trip to China, and there were a couple missile & nuke treaties with the USSR. On his signature New Federalism policy, the Post Office lost its cabinet level status and he created the EPA (while, at roughly the same time, killing the Clean Water Act). Of course, it was all downhill from his re-election.
As to Reagan and Clinton, neither was a complete success by the time they ran for re-election. Reagan had reintroduced us to the era of deficits as high as far as the eye could see, but inflation was finally tamed (whether you give credit to Volcker or Reagan is immaterial – the average voter knew Reagan but not Volcker) and Reagan had definitely convinced us it was morning in America, though many felt the Rising Sun was eclipsing the United States. Clinton had failed to get his signature health care plan across, and he had even lost Congress to the opposition Republicans, but by 1996 we were in the middle of our fourth year of deficit reduction, and the fears that Japan was about to overtake America had receded into the distant past.
As to the failures… Ford didn’t have a long first term, but he certainly didn’t Whip Inflation Now. Carter’s first two and a half years looked good, and then… we had the Iran hostage affair, the oil crisis, the tanking economy and rising inflation, the botched response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (boycotting the Olympics).
Bush I – well, it wasn’t for nothing that Clinton ran on “it’s the economy, stupid.” On the foreign policy side, the war in the Persian Gulf went well, and made for good TV, but everyone knew stopping after 100 hours was a bad idea and price would be paid eventually.
Bush II – by 2004, he had disappeared the surpluses, tanked the economy, and was mismanaging two wars. (Remember the old: “you don’t change horses midstream” nonsense? The fact that the horse was rolling around in the sewer should have been a tip-off it was long past time to get as far away from that particular horse as possible.)
And now we have Obama. Yes, he inherited an economic disaster, but he hasn’t successfully executed the policies needed to make things better in a reasonable amount of time. (That is true regardless of what policies you think are necessary – the evidence is that the economy, while better than they were in November 2008 or January 2009, is still a turkey.)
Which brings up a point. I remember thinking to myself, at this point in 2004 that if GW Bush was as patriotic as he kept telling us, and he believed in what he was doing, he’d have been honest and concluded the exigencies of the office were too much for him. He could still have advanced his policies by resigning and letting his VP, Dick Cheney run for President as an incumbent. Or, if he felt Cheney wasn’t the best candidate to push forth the agenda in which he believed, GW could have fired Mr. Cheney, replaced him with that ideal candidate, and then resigned. Instead, GW, with evidence of his failures all around him, decided to double down… and as we all have seen, make things worse.
Its an option most of these failed first terms could easily have followed. Its one that Obama could follow (but won’t). You have to go back as far as Lyndon Johnson to hear this being stated:
I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.
It speaks poorly of our Presidents that we hear that phrase so rarely when the job of the President is so important. And it speaks poorly of the American public, that we collectively continue to elect and re-elect people who are so unpatriotic and uncaring that they cannot do the right thing.