How remarkable is Barack Obama’s electoral success? Extremely remarkable—much more than most people seem to realize. In nine presidential elections from 1800 through 1832, four candidates won the presidency twice with a popular majority under the Democratic banner--Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Jackson. Since then, in 45 presidential elections, only two more have managed it –FDR and Barack Obama. That’s some mighty rare company, even if Obama were not the first African-American even to be nominated for president by a major party. Other Democrats have been elected twice, of course—Cleveland, Wilson and Clinton—but they only received a plurality of popular votes in their elections, never a popular majority.
But that only makes Obama’s difficulties governing all the more perplexing. Sure, Obama’s faced extraordinary circumstances, so it can be argued that the standard of political competence has been much higher than it has been for most presidents. And that’s true—not just for the number of severe problems left for him by his predecessor, but also for the historically high levels of political polarization and gridlock. But, that’s also exactly what we mean by “presidential greatness”—rising to the occasion in extraordinary circumstances. Abraham Lincoln? Franklin D. Roosevelt? Those men faced monumental challenges which were, to a large extent, results of the collective failure of all those who had come before them. If overcoming massive collective failure is the ultimate test of presidential greatness—and I submit it is—then while it’s obvious that Obama is a great presidential campaigner, it’s equally obvious that he’s not a great president, though he might well have been “near great” in less challenging times (or he might never have been elected at all).
So what accounts for the sharp difference in capacity? One simplifying explanation is suggested by the 1969 best-seller, "The Peter Principle" which argued that in an hierarchical organization people rise to their level of incompetence. They succeed at everything they try, and get promoted for, until they fail, and then stay put in a job that they don’t do well. In Obama’s case, it’s the top job in the land. The Peter Principle provides a rational explanation for why pointing to Obama’s considerable success as a candidate should not be used to pre-empt critical analysis of governing failures. Political genius is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.
I should stop, for a moment, to take note of Obama’s apparent early success—success that in hindsight seems substantial conventionally, but too small bore for the magnitude of the problems of the time. Using ordinary metrics, Obama started off like gangbusters. On January 11, 2010, NPR reported, “In his first year in office, President Obama did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position, a Congressional Quarterly study finds,” getting higher marks than any other president since it started keeping score.
On "The Rachel Maddow Show" the next day, presidential historian Michael Beschloss enthused, “He is the equal of Franklin Roosevelt in his first year, LBJ in 1965 or Ronald Reagan in 1981,” and Maddow herself struck a similar tone. But Matt Yglesias at Think Progress proved far more prescient, noting how selective and strategic the Obama legislative endorsements had been (a point emphasized by Sarah Binder, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution, in NPR’s original report), he wrote:
I continue to think that this approach may prove counterproductive in the midterms. The kind of activists who you need to give money, volunteer, and urge their friends to vote like to see the President they worked to elect out there fighting against the bad guys. Watching him sound out where the pivotal member stands, and then leaning on everyone to his left to get in line is demoralizing.
But it wasn’t just demoralizing for activists—it was deeply disappointing for many Democratic-leaning low-information voters, who generally don’t pay much attention to politics, because they don’t expect it to ever do much for them. By accepting the “limits of the possible” as his legislative strategy guide, and tailoring everything to them, Obama’s governing style clashed fundamentally with his core campaign message of “hope and change”— which spoke to such disaffected voters by the millions—as well as the practical necessities facing the nation at a time of nearly unprecedented crisis.
Turning back to the Peter Principle, by itself, it’s too simplistic an explanation: the federal government isn’t a unitary hierarchical organization, competence in politics is not regularly and overwhelmingly rewarded with promotion, and success is often contingent on forces beyond the individual. There are, in short, many more cross-cutting factors influencing both electoral success and governing difficulty than are typically found in the corporate hierarchies described in The Peter Principle.
Nonetheless, the Peter Principle is enormously useful as a general guidepost, and because it helps break through a commonplace blockage in our understanding: The belief by Obama partisans on the one hand that he’s a great campaigner (true), ergo a great politician (far more ambiguous), and hence a great president, whose troubles are none of his own; and the belief by Obama-haters on the other hand, who ignore their own role in sabotaging him, conclude that he’s a lousy politician, and reason backwards that his election was a somehow fraud—a line of reasoning that ultimately both feeds into and off of the absurdity of birtherism.
Neither of these extremes is true—but neither is most centrist blather, either. Obama is a great presidential campaigner, and the organized opposition he’s faced is virtually unprecedented. His supporters are right on both these counts—empirical facts solidly support them. But that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a great president, and the Peter Principle helps us understand why, as a matter of broad principle, even if the situation of being president is significantly more complicated than being a sales manager, marketing director, CFO or even CEO of a Fortune 500 firm. At least the Peter Principle suggests where we might start to look for reasons why, as well as questions to ask along the way.
Perhaps the most basic question is why is there such a mis-match between the requirements of presidential campaigning, which Obama has mastered, and the requirement of presidential governance, which he has not. Put this way, it’s strikingly clear that the Presidential Peter Principle is much more America’s problem than Obama’s. One need not look any farther than the prospective 2016 GOP field for further proof. Possible “fresh face” candidates with limited experience have included Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who somehow manages to create the impression he’s actually accomplished something (at least Chris Matthews thinks so!), in contrast to the others. And who can forget such 2012 hopefuls as Bobby Jindal and (for the number two spot) Bob McDonnell—much less the likes of Herman Cain and Donald Trump?
The problem is that American governance has been in long-term decline for decades, as gotcha journalism and negative sound-bite campaigning have been on the rise. Among other things, this shifts the playing field in favor of untried, or at best under-exposed candidates, rather than ones with long and distinguished records—although it also favors familiar, established figures more skilled in presentation more than legislation—be they insider media intimates like John McCain, boisterous clowns like Donald Trump, or tireless self-promoters like Newt Gingrich.
Obama’s strengths as an orator with a positive message allowed him to compete quite successfully within and against the media/campaign side of this equation, campaigning most notably against the omnipresent negativity itself, which helped to define himself as an exceptional, if not transcendental figure. Unfortunately, he did so in terms that actually exacerbated the problems of governing, by fundamentally mischaracterizing them. The best way to understand that is through the exceptionally canny picture of political dysfunction drawn by Augustus Cochrane III in his 2001 book, Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie.
Cochrane describes America’s political dysfunction circa 2000 as mirroring that of the South fifty years earlier, as described in V.O. Key’s classic work, Southern Politics in State and Nation. Both polities were ill-prepared to face, much less master the challenges facing them—the transition from an agricultural to a more diversified, more outward-facing industrial and commercial economy and society, for the South in 1950; the transition from an industrial to a more globally-integrated post-industrial economy and society for America as a whole in 2000. The root cause of the problem in both cases was the same—a dysfunctional political party system, incapable of developing coherent policies adequate to the changed circumstances facing the respective societies.
Although formally quite different, they were functionally quite similar, Cochrane argued, much as gills and lungs are. The South’s dysfunction circa 1950 derived from being a one-party system, which was little different from being a no-party system, as Cochrane illustrated via several state-level examples, drawing deeply on Key’s work. America’s dysfunction today derives from another mechanism, with a similar no-party system result—dealignment, the term that Walter Dean Burnham proposed to describe the 1968 election, when presidential and congressional election results first began to systemically diverge. In both situations, politicians who commodify themselves, selling themselves as unique products—for the media marketplace and the donors they benefit—do especially well, in contrast to politicians who focus on more traditional governance issues, either through serving established power networks or assisting the emergence of new ones.
It’s worth noting how unusual an historical period the past 46 years of American political history have been. Before 1968, political scientists and historians can identify five earlier party systems which generally begin and end with “realigning elections” in which both the House and the White House are convincing won by one party in a geographic pattern with significant staying power, usually resulting in at least two decades of single-party rule. In every such period, divided government has been the exception, not the rule. It occurred for just 3 out of 18 2-year terms from 1896 through 1930 (the Fourth Party System) and for just 4 out of 18 2-year terms from 1932 through 1966 (the Fifth Party System). It occurred much more often during the Third Party System (1860-1894), 8 out of 18 terms, but this only happened after seven consecutive terms of unified GOP rule, and unified Democratic rule only lasted for a single 2-year term during this period. In short, American politics has characteristically involved the long-term dominance of one party or the other, with that party setting the tone for the politics of a multi-decade era. When Eisenhower won election in 1952, with a GOP House and Senate for just two years, he did so by explicitly dropping the earlier GOP hostility to the New Deal, for example, and actually moving to strengthen social spending programs.
Since 1968, however, everything has changed. We’ve had 15 1/4 terms of divided government, with another term about to begin, compared to just 4 terms of unified Democratic rule and 2 1/4 terms of unified Republican rule. One consequence of this, Cochrane convincingly argues, is that parties are greatly weakened and charismatic entrepreneurial candidates—such as Reagan, Clinton and Obama—are greatly strengthened in contrast, a circumstance that also greatly favors monied elites even more than usual.
Both Clinton and Obama have mis-diagnosed this situation, claiming that the problem lies in “partisan polarization” and gridlock, which they each promised to transcend in different ways. While they were able to do so rhetorically, during their campaigns (Obama much more strikingly so), this proved to be impossible in practice, despite their rightward shifts to try to court Republican support, because Republicans were on a completely different long-term trajectory, one of becoming increasingly conservative, homogeneous and opposed to compromise, as Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, among others, have argued. This misdiagnosis actually helped Clinton and Obama as candidates, since the dominant media loves nothing better than blaming both sides, but it did nothing to help them succeed in governing, since their rightward moves were notably lacking in popular support. It thus amplified the Peter Principle effect.
The reality is that divided government has rarely served America well. Our greatest accomplishments have come from one-party rule, during relatively brief periods of intense activism—as my former Open Left blogmate Mike Lux argued in his book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came To Be. But this is not a popular thing to say in the media environment that Cochrane describes, an environment which favors selling products above all, and promoting understanding only if it doesn’t get in the way. This political media environment only serves to enhance the disconnect between successful candidate skills and effective governing skills, which means exacerbating the impact of the Peter Principle.
While running for president, Obama sent two distinctly different, if not contradictory messages—though virtually no one seemed to notice, least of all Obama himself. On the one hand, to his base supporters, he sent a message of profound and sweeping transformational change—though with a remarkable lack of specific content. On the other hand, to political elites in the media and elsewhere, he sent a message of extreme conformity to their most cherished ideals—dogmatic, uncritical bipartisan gradualism, which has never, in 200+ years of American history has produced anything remotely resembling profound and sweeping transformational change.
Once elected, Obama doggedly tried to govern as he had pledged to—seeking “common ground” as his starting point, and leaning on both sides to bring them together. Thus, he based his health care reform proposal on ideas tracing back through RomneyCare to the Heritage Foundation in the 1980s and 90s, he undersized his stimulus for fear of antagonizing Republicans, and further placated them by devoting almost 40% of it to tax cuts, and he abandoned any sort of serious attempt to hold anyone accountable for anything during the Bush years, either on Wall Street or in the Bush administration itself.
Obama didn’t get much credit for this, of course, because Republicans immediately started attacking him relentlessly, and the media reverted immediately to he said/she said mode. But given the reality of his position and his power—plus his own self-imposed limitations on how he would exercise or expand that power—it was inevitable that he did much more to move Democrats to the right (as Yglesias noted above) than to move Republicans to the left. And the result of doing this was that he delivered less and less of the hope and change his supporters were looking for, no matter how high he drove up his QC score of presidential effectiveness in winning congressional votes.
Of course, Obama’s governing strategy was doomed from the start. Great leaders move to find common ground—but only after clearly staking out the higher ground of their animating vision. They do not immediately move to the center, dragging all their followers along with them—they move the center towards themselves, dragging the rest of society along with them.
That’s what Obama’s most fervent supporters were expecting him to do when they voted for him in 2008. And that constituency still exists—though it’s a good deal more skeptical now. That’s a good thing. Because American just can’t afford another Peter Principle Presidency.