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The changed presidency

Feb 17, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

On Monday, many Americans get the day off work in observance of the national holiday honoring America's presidents. Presidents Day comes during a period in our country when the actual person holding the presidency usually isn't all that popular.

It's been that way for a while now. The three most recent chief executives, while popular enough to attain office and keep it for two terms, have been opposed, if not reviled, by at least half of the American public. Bill Clinton enjoyed high personal popularity upon leaving office, but in neither of his two presidential elections did he win even 50 percent of the vote. Both Clinton campaigns featured third-party candidate Ross Perot, and Clinton's highest share of the vote was 49 percent.

George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and essentially was appointed president by the U.S. Supreme Court. He squeaked by John Kerry in 2004 and left office with an approval rating of barely 20 percent.

The current president? Barack Obama has managed to win two elections, but he is the subject of withering attacks and criticism on a daily basis of a sort not seen previously in what might be called the modern era of the presidency. (If you want to hear some mean talk about a president, look into what Lincoln's opponents used to say about him.)

Although George H. W. Bush won an election with 54 percent of the popular vote (before being defeated soundly for re-election), not since Ronald Reagan, whose second-term election was 30 years ago, has there been a president who truly could claim widespread, comfortable, lasting approval. Reagan won the last true landslide in 1984, capturing 60 percent of the popular vote and winning 97.5 percent of the electoral college vote.

When might we see another 60 percent president? When might there be another president who wins 45, 46, or even 49 states in a presidential election, as Reagan did in 1984 and as Lyndon Johnson did in 1964?

Don't hold your breath.

Regardless of who the next president is, it seems inconceivable that by 2016 the climate of ferocious polarization in American politics will have eased. The popular, easy-going Ronald Reagan would not recognize the current atmosphere of U.S. presidential politics.

Reasonable people might well wonder, in fact, why anyone in his or her right mind would want to be the president of the United States under the current conditions. Aside from the almost unimaginable pressures of the job and the burden of responsibility unlike any other on Earth, the ceaselessly poor temper of political fanatics who fuel and are fueled by the Internet would seem to be enough to make sane people of any political persuasion shy from the prospect of a presidential campaign, to say nothing of a term of office itself.

Yet we know there will be candidates -- probably only one of substance for the Democrats if Hillary Clinton decides to run, but a full, swarming slate of Dems if she doesn't, and probably a bloodbath for the presidential nomination on the Republican side, particularly if former darling Chris Christie can't regain his political footing soon.

Hardly the stuff of national consensus building, Reagan- or LBJ-style.

A supportable conclusion is that it would take a monumental crisis for a truly unifying and popular president of United States to rise again. The crisis would need to be of the proportion of a world war, a terrorist rampage greater than that of 9/11, a plague-like national health calamity, or an economic meltdown even worse than the one we experienced five years ago.

And even then, could that white-horse president actually appear and survive? Would our 24-hour cable TV news cycle and the insatiable piranhas of Internet political warfare permit any one person to gain and sustain supermajority goodwill so the person truly could claim a national mandate to govern?

The presidency of Abraham Lincoln was a much different thing from that of Thomas Jefferson, just as the presidency in John F. Kennedy's time was far different from that of Theodore Roosevelt's. It is not always easy to recognize historic shifts when we are living during them, but considering the condition of the presidency in the political and social climate surrounding it, a case can be made that another such shift has occurred.

Consider this proposition: The presidency in the time of Barack Obama is fundamentally and permanently different from that of Ronald Reagan. That is less a reflection on the president than it is of the nation. Not only has there not been a majority-plus-10 president in 30 years, it is likely now that presidents, presidential candidates and voters themselves no longer even think in those terms. They exist in a photo-finish environment, from the day they start running until the day they leave office.

As this Presidents Day arrives, about the only thing most Americans can agree on related to the subject of the holiday is that the three-day weekend is nice. Everything else is split just about right down the middle, and split it will stay until a cataclysm realigns the presidential universe.

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