Given the track record of the past decade and a half, we’re beginning to wonder why any president would even bother with a second term. With Barack Obama less than halfway through his second stint in the Oval Office, his presidency is already taking a nosedive.
A Fox News poll released last week showed that a majority of voters (68 percent) think that the present administration is less competent than Bill Clinton’s, and a plurality (48 percent) deem it less competent than George W. Bush’s. Mr. Obama’s predecessor wasn’t exactly considered a model of executive skill, either. In 2006, at a comparable point in Mr. Bush’s presidency, a CNN poll found that 47 percent of respondents deemed him competent.
Why the sagging numbers? To some extent, at least, it’s probably a reflection of the natural cycles of politics. By the time a president reaches his second term, the honeymoon period is well over, and partisan attitudes tend to have calcified. It’s not just perception, however. Second terms tend to be objectively worse — staffed by second-tier aides, focused on second-tier priorities and almost always helmed by a president in the grips of exhaustion.
While those trends are near-universal, however, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that our two most recent presidents have been distinctively overmatched by the office. Mr. Bush seemed powerless in the face of Hurricane Katrina, a faltering Iraq war and the financial crisis. Mr. Obama’s major policy efforts — the stimulus package and Obamacare — both failed to meet their stated objectives and his administration is constantly plagued by performance failures of which he claims no prior knowledge.
Taken individually, the result of either one would have been a loss of faith in the man. Taken together, the result is a growing loss of faith in the institution of the presidency.
Two factors are at work here, both of which merit attention from voters as the 2016 presidential race begins in earnest after this year’s midterm elections.
The first is the importance of presidential temperament. Mr. Bush often seemed more concerned with taking decisive action than with examining the implications of his decisions, and often was too slow to correct mistakes. Mr. Obama demonstrates little interest in the administrative work that is essential to the office and seems content to let empty pronouncements substitute for genuine policy.
The second factor is the size of government. We may have reached a point at which it is inevitable that every president will be judged incompetent sooner or later because the federal government has simply grown so bloated that no one man or woman will ever be able to hold it accountable. Unless that trend is reversed, failure is almost inevitable.
There’s still plenty of time before the next presidential election, but the profile for the ideal candidate is already clear: Someone with proven management skills and a will to rein in a leviathan government. Absent a new president with those traits, we expect to write a similar editorial in eight years’ time.
— From the Orange County Register