Can any president succeed in today’s political world?

June 17, 2012

Lost in the chatter about whether President Obama will win a second term in November is an even bigger — and perhaps even more important — question: Is it possible for a president — any president — to succeed in the modern world of politics?

Consider this: We are in the midst of more than a decade-long streak of pessimism about the state of the country, partisanship is at all-time highs and the media have splintered — Twitter, blogs, Facebook and so on and so forth — in a thousand directions all at once.

Add those three major factors up and what becomes clear is that any president elected (or reelected) this November has slim hopes — or at the most a very narrow window — for political success.

“Due to the evolution of our politics and media, we may never see a two-term president again,” said Mark McKinnon, a senior strategist for President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

Added Democratic strategist Chris Lehane: “In an era of high-definition politics, where every flaw is exposed; in a time where we live in Marshall McLuhan’s global community on speed; in an age where every leaf that falls is covered in some form or fashion, it is supremely challenging to effectively govern.”

The last week in politics is illustrative of the massive communications challenges a president faces. The week began for President Obama with news from the West Coast that his Commerce secretary, John Bryson, had been involved in a series of car accidents reportedly due to a medical condition. Elections in Egypt and Greece as well as increased violence in Syria drew worldwide attention. Then came Obama’s economy speech on Thursday and his administration’s shift in deportation policy for young illegal immigrants on Friday. And then there was the showdown with the Daily Caller’s Neil Munro in the Rose Garden.

News is being made — and covered — literally every minute of the day across the world and, as president, Obama is forced to read and react to virtually all of it. (One advantage for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the presidential election: As a challenger candidate, he can pick and choose where he sounds off.)

Layer over the constant stream of news with the fact that Twitter, blogs and cable television turn every slip of the tongue, misstatements or gaffe into a mountain — “the private sector is doing fine” being a prime, recent example — and it’s clear that the idea that the president can drive the hourly, daily or weekly message of his choosing feels outdated. The bully pulpit may still exist, but it’s far less bully than it once was.

That’s especially true not only because the fracturing of the media makes it hard to push a clear message but also because roughly half of the American public doesn’t want to hear the message (whatever it is) because it is of the other party.

According to a Pew Research Center study released last month, the difference between Republicans and Democrats on 48 value questions was a whopping 18 points — double the difference as recently as 1997. The growth of partisanship is even more remarkable given that there has been no noticeable change in other major demographic categories — white/black, men/women, religious/not religious — on Pew’s values questions in the past 25 years.

So, what’s a president to do — since throwing up your hands and walking away is, well, not an option? According to a handful of smart Democratic and Republican strategists to whom we put that very question, the only answer — at least at the moment — is to wait and see what the November election brings.

“The presidential campaign, even if very close, will open the door to a moment of national catharsis as it does every four years, and the 45 [to] 49 percent of America who opposed the winner will in part give their leader a new chance,” insisted Phil Musser, a Republican strategist. “You need to look no further than Obama’s honeymoon period in 2009 to find that example, albeit short-lived.”

Stan Greenberg, who handled polling for former President Bill Clinton, agreed with Musser generally but said the onus for where the country and its politics goes next lies with Republicans. “Unless one party has a sweep as in 2008 and 2010, we face a moment of decision for the Republicans,” said Greenberg. “Note for a moment, bills freed up for action after 2010. And I think you face a similar moment after 2012 and in 2013.”

The scarier scenario — whispered about by political strategists in both parties — is that there is neither a mandate for either side in November nor a post-election catharsis, meaning that the next president gets no honeymoon period and, therefore, policy and/or political progress will fail before it ever has a chance to succeed.

Nick Ayers, who managed former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign earlier this year, sounded an optimistic note amid the mounting pessimism of our times.

“When your nation’s bloodiest war was your own civil one, and that was 150 years ago, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about our political system,” said Ayers. “Our country’s best presidents have arisen out of the worst of times.”

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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