Modern presidents divide between grinders and actor/celebrity performers – handwriting on the wall?
The puzzler I raise today: what does Biden’s curious 25 percent popularity falloff say about him, those polled, the presidency, and the world? Something lurched with surprising suddenness, but not the ever-predictable, right-leaning centrist: he governs as he campaigned, cautiously as the iconic, modest moderate. He remains loyal to getting things done (however compromised), talking up bipartisanship (a pipe dream), climate change as challenge (but not looming catastrophe, say, like Ukraine), even that negotiation, reality and reason still matter (increasingly in doubt).
Disturbingly more than ever, politics comes down to performance and misdirection, even magic thinking, thanks to dirty money, incessant media propaganda, and entombed electorates. Our best contemporary minds lust after treasure and private power, not public office. Along comes Biden (his policy and values aside) with more hands on federal experience and leadership chops than the last five presidents. Whatever, his electoral popularity cleaves like melting glaciers. If not Biden in charge, then who should rule today—McConnell, McCarthy, Trump? A GOP House?
By comparison to a crazed, predatory, tantrum-throwing right-wing party—sans the charade of people-helping ideas, Uncle Joe should be a safe default. Not so: the pandemic (though resolved infinitely better than Trump), inflation (beyond WH purview), unpleasant legislative defeats (indirectly responsible), and a clumsy Afghanistan withdrawal (but at least we’re out) has turned expected stability (if only as high contrast) into a presidency gasping for credibility. Maybe war will help. I am no Biden defender, rejecting his foreign policy, defense spending, and environmental priorities, but the disapproval “punishment” hardly matches his alleged crimes (compare with horror to a second Trump term).
Years ago, my brilliant if frustrated friend, Francis Thomas, persuaded me that since 1960, the quality of American presidents has fallen off a cliff, independent of policy, programs, personality or mindsets. Not JFK fans, we endured LBJ as befuddled by Vietnam, Nixon a criminal menace (despite positives), Ford and Carter well-meaning weaklings, Reagan a partisan, puppet-buffoon (before dementia), Clinton indeed a scandalized “slick Willy,” Dubya an embarrassing pretend president, and Obama, under-prepared and lacking balls, thus a disappointment. What a miserable run: greater untrustworthy, less “character,” and deficient WH executive prowess. What top CEO would have hired such applicants as line managers?
Our shock and awe was confirmed when, compounding Dubya’s eight years of amateur hour, a spewing, never-before-elected criminal boss gained the presidency in 2016—a disgrace with incredible staying power. The worst thing about Trump, amidst the daunting, subsequent criminal array, is proving how a record-free, “non-politician” stomps a primary campaign, lies with abandon, wins the nomination and, as a divine punishment (for our imbecility, if not the Electoral College), stumbles into the White House.
The woes of grinders
My thesis today: Biden suffers from being a steadfast, “grinder president”—insufficiently entertaining, not very articulate, with uninspiring speechifying, and mercifully bereft of daily crises—in an age that celebrates the high-drama, modern showmanship of “actor presidents,” namely Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Trump (only one of whom boasted marginal federal experience). After the absurdist Trump maelstrom, despite his own respectable vice-presidency, Biden suffers from a startling enthusiasm gap—and that augurs ill. Except for Biden and Bush I (with D.C. competence), as a result many modern presidents have left notorious problems untouched, often worse upon departure.
Alas, too many winners (without voting records) have been governors plus one know-nothing business failure (a true good for nothing)—and except for Trump were overwhelmed, acquiescing to “professional” (deep state) advisors. Though more resistant, Trump was overwhelmed, too, defeated by reality (and obliviousness from day one). Obama sought to curb the military-industrial complex, but was rebuffed by massive internal opposition. This set of leaders except Biden (aided by media, marketing and money shifts) turned politics into entertainment, pumping out drama and intrigue, even with Clinton and Dubya a score of scandals. It’s as if steady presidential piloting was as unpopular (and rare) as terrorism. Many channeled earlier versions of high-drama actor-presidents: JFK, Nixon, and LBJ, but less so grinders like Ford, Carter or Bush I—none of the latter tellingly re-elected.
Bring on Michele?
In this light, however implausible, surfaces another left field prospect who’d never have to defend a vote she never made. Two weeks ago, a “Republican strategist” (Monica Crowley at the latest CPAC fiasco) claims “some Republicans” are “terrified” that Michele Obama could run for the White House, more proof that that personality, even charisma, matter above all. Imagine Michelle as distressing the right, a formidable “candidate who is completely plausible, very popular, and immune to criticism.” She would contrast with whatever nutcase Republicans nominate. Crowley cites Michele’s 2020 Convention keynote speech, bestselling autobiography, 50-city book tour, Stacey Abrams-style voting rights team plus “massive Netflix and Spotify deals.”
Thus does such folly reinforce the division of modern presidents into either re-electable actors or one-term grinders. That is, stardom sells and wins two terms (except for Trump, always the flaky fake)—but hardly provides any great record of nation- or citizen-improving achievements. Actors outlast the grinders who view the presidency, well, as a job, not an ordained entitlement. Interestingly, second terms were far less successful for Reagan, Clinton, Dubya and Obama—and thank every heavenly power that Trump the worst loser ever was abruptly deposed.
Two terms ain’t working
A presidency of one six-year term would decrease second term malaise. Think of the immense benefits, the monumental decrease in scheming (forever focusing on the re-election run). The same logic goes for six-year Supreme Court terms, perhaps with one shot at renewal. I’d welcome four-year House terms as two years makes for chronic paranoia, machinations, and fundraising. No one needs come from the grave to confirm, “What is, isn’t working.”
Whether or not being a grinder or actor presidents equates with positive legacies, this distinction allows us the big picture view. While historians rank top 20th C. leaders (TR, FDR, even JFK, Eisenhower and Reagan) as outstanding presidents, vs. shrunken later figures, the inexorable decline is self-evident. Notably, the nation was relieved to see Reagan, Clinton, Dubya and Obama exit without further ado.
Of course the figure especially ripe for rejection was Trump in 2020—for no other president was so fully exposed as a disaster at basic governance (appointments, upholding law and order, lessening division), at business, foreign affairs, public health and safety, then actively blowing his re-election campaign. Trump takes the Olympic gold as Father of Modern Political Lying, trivializing Nixon, the formidable runner-up, even Bush/Cheney, both holding their own.
Charisma, if not cultism, rules
If presidents continue to win by charisma, even cultism, brace for slicker PR, duplicitous social media and limitless money. Good character is now a negative correlation, setting up incompetent, inexperienced, “non-” or “anti-politicians” ripe for the picking by whatever authoritarian group holds sway. Standards wither: relevant background, election to office, or basic skill-sets in law or public policy. If our greatest liar can sucker enough voters because he “tells it like it is,” America faces a threat on par with climate change. Trump never wanted less elitism or less billionaire control, just a ruling elite that won’t impede dictatorial command by the stable genius from Queens.
If entertainment becomes all that matters, we banish the occasional Bidens, the experienced, tested, straight-forward types who view the presidency as a job demanding of all things administrative, strategic, financial and planning skills. You need not like Biden to appreciate that more self-absorbed Entertainers-in-chief represent a future of dangerously inept, indeed immoral chief executives. Brace for more lying, slick bullies skilled at propaganda and readily marketable as messiahs. Only compared to appalling, current GOP outlaws can one support the best Democrats as at least capable of sustaining governance in a threatened democracy. Silly me, thinking competence, maturity and experience matter more than hustle, stardom and sizzle. I fear for my grandchildren.