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Confronting Obama Disappointment: For Presidential Incumbents, It’s Inevitable

While hanging out with friends at the shore over the weekend, I picked up a March issue of The Atlantic magazine, featuring a cover story that purported to explain whether President Barack Obama was a “chess master or pawn.”

The upshot, the compelling article said, depends as much on the outcome of the 2012 election as on any specific thing the president does. If the president wins, he gets thumbs up on his policies and an extended opportunity to see them to fruition. If he loses, those same policies will be cited as the source of his undoing.

“What I feel I’ve learned about Obama is that he was unready for the presidency and temperamentally unsuited to it in many ways,” James Fallows wrote. “Yet the conjunction of right-wing hostility to his programs and to his very presence in office, with left-wing disappointment in his economic record and despair about his apparent inability to fight Republicans on their own terms, led to an underappreciation of his skills and accomplishments…”

But Fallows said the test is not where a president starts but where ends up. “Not even FDR was FDR at the start,” he wrote.

Our failure to truly understand politics well may keep many of us disengaged from voting. Many voters choose a candidate based on a stated commitment to the issues of greatest importance to them. If the candidate fails to deliver on that issue—regardless of the reasons why—reelection becomes a dicey proposition.

If voters won’t return the incumbent to office, but can’t stomach the opposition, they may well decide to sit out the election. Others will just hold their noses and vote grudgingly for the incumbent. Some will cross party lines to emphasize their disappointment.

Even the late legendary labor leader George Meany reserved the right not to vote. When I was in college, one of my political science professors secured an audience with the president of the AFL-CIO for our class. At union headquarters, Meany held forth about who in Congress was supportive of labor and who was not.

In 1972, the union did not officially endorse a presidential candidate, which many credited as helping to pave the way for incumbent Richard Nixon’s staggering defeat of Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.). One of my classmates asked Meany whether he believed by not supporting McGovern the union had “acquiesced” to Nixon.

“There’s no law that says I gotta choose between two bums,” Meany retorted. He said McGovern double-crossed labor by courting its support, then voting against a key bill, saying he represented an agricultural state and had to go with his constituency. Endorsing Nixon was a non-starter so, Meany figured, there was no choice but to choose no one.

Feeling burned discourages voters who feel betrayed. They want to believe that the candidate will do all he vowed to do.

Fallows said the president whose talents and skills are so perfectly calibrated to pull that off has yet to be born.

“George W. Bush was disciplined and decisive but not sufficiently informed or inquisitive. Bill Clinton was informed and inquisitive but was nearly driven from office because he was not perfectly disciplined. George H.W. Bush was disciplined and informed but could not seem empathetic or visionary. Ronald Reagan was eloquent and decisive but less and less attentive to the analytic part of his job,” Fallows wrote.

“Without exception, they betray their followers—and must do so, to stay in office and govern. In Obama’s case,” Fallows argued, “this started with the forgiving approach to Wall Street and continued with his re-commitment of troops to Afghanistan and extension of other Bush-era security policies.”

George W. Bush grew the deficit, in the face of being the standard bearer of a party that opposed debt, deficits and big bailouts. Clinton supported welfare reform and burned black supporters—can you say Sister Souljah? Reagan cut taxes and then spent much of the remainder of his tenure raising them.

Under Obama’s watch a bank crisis was averted, a couple of key terrorists were killed, Detroit automakers made a comeback, a timetable to get out of Iraq was set, health care was passed and upheld by the Supreme Court and Congressional Republicans signed off on government funding for the rest of the year – eliminating the chance to weaken the president by threatening a government shutdown in an election year.

That may not represent a perfect record, but it shows movement, that the president is a player. And I’m guessing there may be some progressive moves left in his bag of tricks.

In other words, voters shouldn’t sit this one out. Unlike Many, you gotta choose.

Jackie Jones, a veteran journalist and journalism educator, is director of Jones Coaching LLC, a career transformation firm.

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