Barack Obama's problem is that he's too much like George Washington.
That's what ran through my head earlier this week as I pondered the president's sinking approval rating — along with the constant (often ridiculous) sniping about his penchant for golfing his way through international crises. As I reflected on Obama's woes, I was reminded of Jeffrey K. Tulis's The Rhetorical Presidency, a 1987 book that has deeply shaped my understanding of presidential power — and weakness.
Tulis argues that from the nation's first president all the way down to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the opening decades of the 20th century, presidents strove to situate themselves above the partisan fray. Following George Washington's aristocratic example, the president was thought to be an extra-partisan figure who would stand apart from the petty squabbles of politicians in the more democratic branches of government (especially Congress). This would enable the president, more than any other officeholder, to identify and champion the common good of the nation, as opposed to the partial goods and interests pursued by the country's myriad clashing factions.
The main way that presidents did this, according to Tulis, was largely through nonaction — refusing to get too involved in the passage of legislation, and even more so by delivering speeches and other public pronouncements that emphasized national unity and portrayed themselves as disinterested observers of the machinations going on in the political trenches below. (Anyone familiar with the strong-arm tactics Lincoln employed to gain passage of the 13th Amendment, dramatized in Steven Spielberg's pedantic film about the 16th president, will see that Tulis' account is somewhat of an idealization.)
But all of this changed with the Progressive presidents; with TR to some extent, but much more so with Wilson. They began to use presidential rhetoric in new ways, among them to mold public opinion to serve partisan ends. The president would no longer strive to stand above the fray but would aim to manipulate it from above. He would be the most powerful partisan in the country, using radio and then other forms of technology and media to go over the heads of Congress to speak directly to the people, motivating them through words and stage-managed deeds to support this or that policy or national goal favored by his own party.
Franklin Roosevelt was a master of this, and so were Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, though Tulis is also highly critical of Johnson for taking the rhetorical presidency too far, by allowing rhetoric to run ahead of policy itself. Johnson wanted to create a Great Society by launching a "war on poverty," and policymakers were tasked with coming up with policies to match those phrases. Tulis thinks this is a reckless approach to governing, because the rhetorical inflation will tend to produce deep disappointment and civic cynicism when reality (inevitably) falls short of the lofty words. The clear implication of Tulis' argument is that the antigovernment backlash that fueled the Reagan Revolution had its roots in Johnson's rhetorical overreach.
Tulis' book is a work of analysis and scholarship, but it also has a critical aim, which is to cast a cautionary light on the modern rhetorical presidency while increasing our admiration for the earlier model of the nonpartisan statesman-presidents of the 18th and 19th centuries.
But what, then, to make of Barack Obama?
Tulis himself suggests that modern presidents can't simply revert to the old way of presidential rhetoric and governing, because popular expectations, the interpersonal dynamic in Washington, and the whole bureaucratic apparatus of the modern presidency preclude it. We assume that our presidents will be partisans and shapers of public opinion. So a high-minded, detached president will both confound our expectations, leading to low approval ratings, and scuttle his party's agenda in Congress. Modern presidents may be thought of as leaders of the country, but they are also, and even primarily, leaders of their own parties, expected to rally as much of the nation as possible around a partisan agenda.
Yes, in pushing for a stimulus package and then the Affordable Care Act during the first two years of his presidency, Obama acted like a partisan. But since then — from the futile effort to reach a budget compromise with Republicans during the long, hot, ruinous summer of 2011, to his recent refusal to twist congressional arms on behalf of Democratic nominees blocked by the GOP — Obama has aimed to be more than a partisan, to look down on the grubbiness of inside-the-beltway dealmaking and backstabbing, as if to say, "I'm just too good for this petty crap."
That's the Washington way — George Washington. And yet, the more Obama models his presidency on the aristocrat of Mount Vernon, the weaker he appears — like a passive observer of events rather than a shaper of them. The problem isn't his obsessive golfing. It's that his high-minded, dispassionate rhetoric — whether delivered before a golf outing on vacation or in a White House press conference — makes him sound aloof and apathetic, not like the paragon of civic virtue that Washington aimed to be.
This might be unfair. It might even be a sign of decline in our political system, with partisanship inexorably dragging every institution and actor into the mud, with no one left to stand above it all with an eye trained firmly on what's truly best for the country as a whole.
But presidents need to respond to the way the world is, not the way they wish it to be. The logic of partisan politics now trumps everything — even the effort of the most powerful man on the planet to transcend it.