In Presidential Politics, it’s All How You Finish

Early on, critics said George Washington was ruining the country. Abraham Lincoln at one point was the most hated sitting president in history. Ronald Reagan, during the first couple of years of his presidency, was associated with economic failure. And Bill Clinton’s presidency seemed finished from the starting gate. But each of these two-term presidents finished strong, and is generally given high marks by presidential historians.

With three years to go in Barack Obama’s presidency, there is strong reason to believe – if you turn off conservative talk radio, that is – that peace and prosperity are just around the corner. Sure, Obama is currently mired in the health care muck, and many haven’t forgotten the debacle in Benghazi. But in political terms, three years is a long time away. With the Iraq War concluded and the one in Afghanistan coming to a close, if Obama can manage to keep our troops out of Syria and Iran and with no threat of war looming there or anywhere else, and if the sputtering economy finally settles into a strong and sustained growth period, then the troubled president will see his poll numbers rise, and that will bode very well for his party as well.

There was a political perfect storm between 1976 and 1986, one that coupled Jimmy Carter’s incompetence and Ronald Reagan’s masterful exploitation of it, leading to the widespread notion that Republicans outperform Democrats in both of the crucial “p”s (peace and prosperity).

Supposing, however, that the next three years are rosy ones in both domestic and foreign affairs, the Post-Reagan era scorecard will strongly favor the Democrats. The first George Bush kept the country safe and generally got good marks in global affairs, but at the end seemed like a rich boy out of touch with common folk. His son, the quintessential victim of circumstance, saw his presidency sandwiched in between two tragedies: 9/11 and the Great Recession. Sure, he deserves some of the blame for each, but largely he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was the poor schmuck who went to the diner wearing his best suit, only to have the butterfingered waitress spill a tray full of food – coffee, ketchup, and cole slaw – all over him.

And then there’s Bill Clinton. Teflon President II (Reagan was the first) managed to avert culpability for allowing Osama bin Laden to plot against the United States for a decade, and he was there to ride the coattails of a computer technology-fueled economic juggernaut. If Obama can manage the same – which will take a combination of skill and luck – then the scorecard in the age following Reagan will be: Democrats 2, Republicans 0.

The far-reaching consequences of such a scenario would be, however true or false, that for the first time since Reagan came to town, the party of peace and prosperity would be not the Republicans, but the Democrats.




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