If you want to know who to blame for any number of global and domestic crises, there is one simple answer, according to many critics: Barack Obama. The tide turned against many Democratic Congressional candidates in this year’s mid-term elections largely, some claim, because of President Obama’s relatively low approval ratings. Critics have charged Obama with indecision in the face of crises ranging from ISIS to Ebola. The seeming drift began soon after his second inaugural address – delivered only last year – when his ambitious call to collective action was quickly overtaken by a series of controversies ranging from the NSA surveillance leaks to the botched rollout of healthcare.gov. Yet a quick look back at history complicates the notion that these challenges are rooted in President Obama’s individual leadership deficiencies. It also illuminates a factor that does, indeed, make this president’s situation unique: the often-ignored fact that he is America’s first black president.
Every two-term president since Franklin Roosevelt has faced controversy over his leadership or diminishing popularity – and sometimes both – by his sixth year in office. The examples are so familiar that one hardly has to name them – the Iraq War and the economic downturn for George W. Bush, impeachment for Bill Clinton, and Iran-contra for Reagan, just to cite a few. Some call this the second-term “curse,” which is probably too strong a statement. But this history should at least make us pause before attributing Obama’s difficulties to any unique set of personal shortcomings – for instance, his lack of executive experience before assuming the Presidency.
There are many real reasons that any modern president is likely to be perceived as less popular and drifting in his second term (as polling data show quite clearly). One example: Presidents put together winning coalitions to attain office; over time, those coalitions fray as some supporters inevitably become dissatisfied with specific decisions and policy initiatives. That fraying is strengthened by long-term political trends – like the polarization of Congressional Republicans and Democrats, which has recently reached levels not seen in a century. A first term President might use his initial popularity to achieve substantial objectives as Obama did. But over time the opposition party is very likely to re-mobilize itself, and its supporters, into a unified block of opposition – as the Republicans have done this year, and as the Democrats did in 2006. Senator Mitch McConnell has come in for much criticism for his much-debated statement that he wanted to make Obama a “one-term president.” However one interprets it, McConnell was largely acknowledging reality. In addition, the growth of modern presidential power has led Americans to expect their President to take responsibility for problems that are particularly intractable – international crises and economic downturns. It is unlikely that eight years will pass without economic trouble and a proliferation of foreign policy crises. President Obama, for instance, is in the somewhat unique position of being able to claim responsibility for averting another Great Depression, while still navigating the expectations that come with a fragile economic recovery.
The irony of all this is that, after six years in office, President Obama finds himself in as a situation with many parallels to that of the President who was, in many ways, his polar opposite: George W. Bush. By the middle of Bush’s second term, domestic and international crises—from the recession of 2007 to the war in Iraq – seemed beyond his control. Like Obama, he had inaugurated his second term with a full-throated inaugural address but had been unable to gain traction for his core domestic program – the privatization of social security – as the political opposition unified itself. To be sure, some of Bush’s difficulties had to do with his own spectacular policy failures that far outstrip any of his successor’s – the ill-fated Iraq invasion for instance, which continues to roil Middle East politics to this day. But it is also a reminder that while Presidents, like other great men and women, make history, the longer they stay in office the more they may become subject to longer-term historical trends.
In truth, however, there is one circumstance that makes it difficult to make any comparison between Obama and his predecessors: race. The initial talk of a “post-racial” America that accompanied Obama’s first election has largely disappeared. Indeed, it would be hard to maintain it under the weight of a series of controversies ranging from Trayvon Martin to Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the slow realization that such talk was motivated by the understandable euphoria that accompanied the election of the first African American president. In the intervening years, reality has set in. Even Obama’s seemingly innocuous pronouncements – like his expression of empathy for Martin’s distraught parents – have provoked angry backlash. Initial scholarly studies have concluded that reactions to Obama and his policies have hardly transcended race, even on topics that seem to have nothing to do with racial issues. The election and reelection of a black president is certainly a signal achievement, and a marker of how far America has come from its troubled racial past. But the voting blocks that one would expect to balk at the election of an African American President have remained largely true to form. Only time and careful study will show how much Obama’s opportunity structure has been constrained by race, and allow us to more fully assess how bold – or cautious – a decision maker he has turned out to be.
What, then, should one make of the present difficulties that face President Obama, and his party? There will be understandable post-midterm calls for the President to shake up his top-level advisors and to refocus his priorities. Presidents must take, and be held responsible for, both political and policy victories and defeats. President Obama has certainly marked off victories, as even his detractors concede – from the Recovery Act, to health care reform, to financial regulation, to his more recent administrative actions addressing climate change, immigration and other matters. It is possible that history will eventually recognize these achievements as ranking Obama among the truly great modern Presidents. It is possible that it will not. With regard to his second term difficulties, however, it is very possible that this President will eventually be remembered as doing about as well as expected.
Kenneth W. Mack is the Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law at Harvard University and the author of Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.