The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s virtually impossible to be a successful modern president

Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail.

Why? For lots of reasons up to and including:

* The decline of the bully pulpit as a persuasion mechanism

* The deep partisanship present not only in Congress but also in the electorate more broadly

* The splintering of the mainstream media/the rise of social media.

Consider the last three presidents -- two Democrats, one Republican -- who have had to deal with those three factors in varying degrees. (Can you imagine what Bill Clinton's presidency would have been like if Twitter existed?) As Ron Brownstein writes in a terrific National Journal piece headlined "Half of America":

In one key respect, each president's tenure has followed a similar arc. Each initially sought the White House promising to bridge the nation's widening partisan divide. Clinton pledged to transcend "brain-dead policies in both parties" with his "New Democrat" agenda. Bush declared himself a "compassionate conservative" who would govern as "a uniter, not a divider." Obama emerged with his stirring 2004 Democratic convention speech, evoking the shared aspirations of red and blue America, and took office embodying convergence and reconciliation.
But by this point in their respective second terms, each man faced the stark reality that the country was more divided than it was when he took office. In 1996 and 1997, Clinton reached Washington's most consequential bipartisan agreements (particularly to reform welfare and balance the budget) since the early 1970s. But by 1998, House Republicans were moving inexorably toward their vote to impeach him.
Bush enjoyed some bipartisan first-term successes, particularly on education reform. But by this point in his second term, he was fighting with Democrats over the Iraq War and restructuring Social Security, and with House Republicans over reforming immigration. Obama, from his first weeks, has faced unremitting Republican opposition. And, as his shift toward unilateral executive action underscores, he's increasingly thrown up his hands at the possibility of finding any common ground with the GOP.

The arc of Clinton's presidency is the most different from the other two but that's largely because of the attempt to impeach him, a move that fundamentally re-shaped his presidency.  The similarities between the Bush presidency and Obama's tenure are striking in that the trends -- rank partisanship, the decline of the bully pulpit -- that Clinton had only to grapple with toward the end of his time in office have accelerated exponentially over the past 14 years. And the result has been the same in both cases: A president who a majority of the country disapproves of and a country even more split along ideological lines on, well, everything.

Take the last 96 hours (or so) of the Obama presidency as illustrative of the broader impossibility of being president.

On Thursday, in the immediate aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines plane being shot down over Ukraine, President Obama delivered a cautious statement mourning the tragedy and promising he would get to the bottom of the situation. Conservatives immediately criticized that statement as insufficiently strong, comparing it unfavorably to how President Reagan handled a similar situation in 1983. (As The Fix's Philip Bump explains, the Obama critique is not entirely fair.) Seeking to counter that narrative, Obama delivered another statement on Friday -- and took questions from the press. He was far more aggressive in his tone about the possibility of Russian involvement.  Over the weekend, the story of Secretary of State John Kerry's on mic but off camera comments before a Fox News Channel interview drove much of the chatter. On Monday, Obama was back on TV with an even more aggressive stance on Russia -- "What exactly are they trying to hide?" he asked about Russian separatists reportedly limiting access to the crash site -- while also juggling an executive order banning discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation among federal contractors, hosting a town hall aimed at pushing his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative and trying to cajole Congress into helping him deal with the ongoing crisis of undocumented children at the country's southern border. Oh, and he also was trying to walk a fine line between defending Israel's right to defend itself with somewhat critical comments about the number of Palestinian civilian deaths occasioned by the military operation in Gaza. And, double oh, he and his staff will have to continue to fend off Republican criticism of a three day fundraising tour he leaves on tomorrow -- a cash-collection trip that GOPers believe looks unseemly amid the various domestic and international crises happening at the moment.

It's exhausting to write that paragraph -- much less live it. And, it speaks to the impossibility of convincing partisans pre-disposed not to like you or your intentions/methods, the need to be ever-present on every issue and the difficulty of trying to drive home your preferred message of the day, week or year.

All of that is not to excuse President Obama. He has struggled to contain self-inflicted wounds -- particularly in his second term -- ranging from the IRS scandal to the problems of vets receiving adequate and timely care. His relations with Congress -- Democrats included -- have never been warm and, as a result, his ability to ask for the benefit of the doubt is non-existent. His underestimation of just how polarized the country and the Congress have become was entirely avoidable; senior members of his inner circle -- many of whom came directly from the campaign(s) -- were all too aware of that reality. His belief in his own powers of persuasion -- to the Congress and the country -- were also heavily overrated.

But, it's hard to see how Obama could be considered "successful" even if he hadn't made the various mistakes -- in governance and the politics of politics -- that he did.  His presidency began at a time not only of unprecedented polarization in Congress and the country but also at a moment in which a president's ability to bend the country to his will had reached a low ebb.

I was talking to a Democratic pollster recently about President Obama's weak job approval ratings and what it might mean for Democrats on the ballot this fall. I asked how Obama could move his numbers up and what a "good place" for him might look like. The pollster responded that the political world needed to change its definition of what being a popular president entails in this day and age. His point was that if Obama could somehow crawl back to 50 percent approval before November, that would be a huge success. Obama's ceiling -- almost no matter what he said or did -- was around 52 or 53 percent, the pollster argued.

Is success impossible as a president these days? No. But failure is far, far more likely. Ask Barack Obama. Or George W. Bush.