All presidents are rorschach tests

The way our government works, you can't really tell just who is responsible for what

Published April 5, 2010 1:06PM (EDT)

I'm usually pretty quick to slam Frank Rich, so I suppose I should say something when he makes good points, as he did in most of yesterday's column.  Rich notes changed impressions of Barack Obama after the healthcare bill passed, and asks: "But has the man really changed -- or is it just us?"  He answers:

What's clear is that Obama largely remains a fixed point even while the rest of us keep wildly revising our judgments, whether looking at him through the prism of partisan politics, race, media melodrama or any other we choose. It’s our recession-tossed country, not his presidency, that is rocked by violent mood swings.  

I'd add: it's always like that. George W. Bush went from stubborn to steadfast to stubborn again depending on how the results turned out.  Bill Clinton was always seen shifting left or right, because that would give everyone clues about what he "really" was.  And so on.  Rich talks about "Obama-as-Rorschach test," and he's right -- but that's true of every president.  Forever, as the recent revival in the fortunes of Ulysses S. Grant demonstrates. 

Rich does falter in the last two paragraphs, in which he suddenly switches gears and does think that Obama has changed in the last weeks after all.  He ends by noting the importance of economic growth to the 2010 election, and says:

If he succeeds in that all-important challenge -- or, for that matter, if he fails -- the enigmatic, Rorschach-test phase of Obama’s still young relationship to the American people may rapidly draw to a close. It will be the moment of clarity that allows us to at last judge him, as we should all presidents, on what he’s actually done rather than on who we imagine he is.

But of course that's not true at all. There's no "what he's actually done" that's separable from "who we imagine he is," and there never can be.  That's partially because of the American system of separated institutions sharing powers, which assures that the president never gets unambiguous credit or blame for anything, but it would be true anyway.  Was Ronald Reagan a conservative idol who preached the gospel of low taxes and smaller government, staying the course even when the economy staggered as a last reaction to Jimmy Carter's feckless policies?  Or was he a pragmatist who abandoned ideologically-mandated tax and budget cuts once they plunged the economy into recession, raising taxes to narrow the budget gap and never again proposing seriously slashing spending?  The answer, clearly, depends at least as much on what one imagines Reagan was as it does on what he actually did, and there was no more a "moment of clarity" in November 1982 than there was any time since. 

The same will be true of Obama.  Yes, he will be judged -- the Democrats will gain or lose seats this fall -- based in large part on how the economy fares over the next six months.  And then he'll be judged again in 2012, and again throughout his second term should he have one, and then again as the future opens windows on different aspects of his presidency.  I don't want to overstate the point. I'm not arguing that evaluating past presidents, or current ones for that matter, is entirely subjective.  I have no problem with Rich's claim that we "should" judge presidents by what they actually do.  However, if he's waiting for a moment of clarity that will yield consensus on any of this, he's going to waiting a long, long, time.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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