|The Next President: Who Best Compensates for Obama’s Failings?|
By Troy Senik
Thursday, July 18 2013
The American electorate has a reliable propensity to behave like a spurned lover. Just as a heartbroken individual is prone to search out precisely the traits their previous partner lacked, Americans disappointed by (or, in some cases, simply bored of) their outgoing president tend to look for candidates who compensate for their predecessor’s shortcomings.
Consider the last 50 years or so of the American presidency. In 1960, Americans traded in the low-key, avuncular leadership style of Dwight Eisenhower for the cool, polished and utterly self-conscious glamour of John F. Kennedy.
In 1968, when Lyndon Johnson, dogged by fecklessness in Vietnam, abandoned his reelection campaign, the nation turned instead to Richard Nixon, whose appetite for victory was paired with a resolve that stood in sharp contrast to LBJ’s handwringing.
In 1976, with Nixon’s shadow still hanging heavy over Washington in the wake of Watergate, Jimmy Carter – a man marketed on his humility and honesty – captured the Oval Office with the implicit promise that he would atone for the sins of an imperial presidency.
After four years of Carter proved to be a national exercise in pessimism and powerlessness, Ronald Reagan captured the nation’s highest office in 1980 with a sunny-eyed vision of America’s future and a fundamental commitment to both the goodness and effectiveness of the nation’s influence on the world stage.
When George Bush was portrayed as a distant and cold aristocrat during the recession of the early 1990s, Bill Clinton – a man who dispensed faux compassion in a hemophilic fashion – reaped the benefits. Eight years later, Clinton, undone by indiscriminate carnality, ceded the office to George W. Bush, who campaigned on a pledge to restore honor and dignity to the White House.
Barack Obama is no exception to this rule. Where George W. Bush was ridiculed for his fumbling, often tongue-tied speeches, Obama was a model of eloquence. Where Bush was derided for his moral certainty, Obama was more prone to shades of grey. Where Bush was criticized for being a polarizing figure, Obama summoned the nation to a new sense of unity that dismissed the very notion of red states and blue states as a false dichotomy (though this notion seemed to fall apart from virtually the moment he took his oath of office).
Obama, it must be noted, was operating at something of an advantage during the 2008 campaign. So sparse was his record at the time that he had considerable latitude to define himself in whatever fashion was most appealing to a restless electorate. The result was the ultimate blank slate candidacy. It’s virtually impossible to combat the candidate of “hope” and “change,” precisely because those concepts, when presented in the abstract, are so devoid of content.
Four and a half years into his tenure in office, however, there is no mystery left to the 44th president. We now know the man, warts and all – and as a result, we can already begin to see the deficiencies that may inform who the nation chooses as his successor.
One doesn’t have to be particularly gripped by partisan fervor to note where Obama most conspicuously falls short. For one, the celebrity that drove his initial candidacy has proven to be a liability in office. There’s often a sense that Obama is well suited to the ubiquitous media presence the job demands, but not to the actual mechanics of his duties; that he possesses little of the managerial competence required of the chief executive of a federal government with nearly 3 million employees. In short, he seems overmatched by the office.
There are stylistic difficulties to match the substantive shortcomings as well. Despite his initial posturing as a post-partisan healer, Obama has proven to be every bit as divisive a figure as his predecessor. Moreover, he has shown a complete lack of the common touch. The product of Ivy League schools whose idea of populism is to complain about the price of arugula to Iowa farmers doesn’t seem like a great fit for your backyard barbeque. This is particularly salient at a time of widespread economic pain from which Obama’s allies in the white wine set seem largely immunized.
What does this mean about Obama’s successor? For starters, it militates in favor of a governor – someone who has a proven track record of success as an executive, who has demonstrated that he can do the part of the job that takes place behind a desk just as well as the part that takes place behind a podium. Second, it points toward someone who will take a more prosaic approach to the position than Obama – someone not as seduced by stentorian speechmaking or the trappings of office, who brings a down to earth, everyman sensibility to the presidency.
Does this point to any one candidate in particular? It would be foolhardy to think that the formula is so perfect that it can generate a reliable prediction, but it certainly favors a few individuals. One could make a reasonable case for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Texas Governor Rick Perry, or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush under this analysis.
Each, however, has a corresponding liability. While Jindal isn’t possessed of Obama’s vanity, he’s still an overachieving brainiac short on relatability. Christie would face a Republican electorate wary of his loyalty to conservatism. Perry would be dogged by the embarrassing legacy of his last presidential campaign and his superficial similarities to George W. Bush. Jeb Bush may be undone by his surname. These considerations may not always be fair, but that doesn’t mean they won’t factor in.
There is one man, however, who seems an especially good fit for this model. He’s a successful governor who has managed to reform deeply entrenched power centers in a left-leaning state. He has a decisively blue-collar mien, right down to the fact that he didn’t graduate from college. Rather than aiming for grand rhetorical accomplishments, he has a deliberate, thoughtful speaking style in which he consistently explains how conservative principles can be put into practice for the benefit of the everyday citizen. That man is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
It remains to be seen whether Walker will even pursue the presidency in 2016, but if he does, he should not be underestimated, for one simple reason: Everything that’s right about him happens to correspond with everything that is wrong with Barack Obama. History suggests that’s a powerful advantage with which to begin a candidacy.
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