When they're not crying.

Catch of the Day: The Curse of Presidential Mediocrity

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to presidency scholar Matthew Dickinson for a very nice takedown of a Chris Cillizza column that claimed: "Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail."

In particular, Dickinson addressed the assertion that the presidency is getting more difficult. He pointed to the reelections of three consecutive presidents as at least modest evidence that the presidency may be somewhat easier today than in the era of George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. (The latter two were not defeated, but were driven from office nonetheless.) Dickinson found a prescient quote from the late presidential scholar Richard Neustadt about how, in the future, presidents (and, Dickinson, adds, pundits) "may look back on the Cold War as an era of stability, authority and glamour. They may yearn for the simplicity they see in retrospect, and also for the solace. Too bad."

The nostalgia is partly a result of misplaced expectations. Presidents can't do everything they want? True -- but that's not a new phenomenon. It's inherent in the job (see also Brendan Nyhan's item today about presidents "losing control of events," featuring Abraham Lincoln admitting that "events controlled me." Presidents never have control over events!).

In addition, I think Cillizza's argument that we've had three recent failed presidents -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- is about two presidents more than he can justify. Cillizza quoted a Democratic operative who claimed that Obama's approval rating will never rise much above 50 percent. That's amazingly short-sighted. Clinton regularly registered approval ratings in the 60s during his second term; George W. Bush, in his first term, set the record for the highest Gallup rating at 90 percent.

Americans have been gloomy about the economy (with reason) throughout Obama's presidency. If the economy picks up and foreign turmoil abates, there's no reason to believe that Obama's approval rating won't rise. Of course, the flip side is that a new recession or some other major setback could send Obama's ratings spiraling down, matching or even surpassing Bush's lows. But the idea that some structural change in the presidency has somehow confined Obama and future presidents to mediocre approval ratings just doesn't wash.

Also: Nice catch!

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net