Join the discussion: Is it impossible to be a successful president?

Compiled by Bethan Owen, Deseret News

Published: Tue, July 29, 2014, 10:10 a.m. MDT

 Presidents Bush, Obama, and Clinton discuss the aftereffects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Presidents Bush, Obama, and Clinton discuss the aftereffects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Being a successful modern president of the United States is impossible, according to Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post. In this day and age, he wrote, no president can hope for an approval rating much higher than 50 percent, no matter what his policies or persona are like.

Others disagree, arguing that Cillizza is just making excuses for politicians who don’t effectively serve the American public.

Cillizza wrote that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have all seen similar outcomes as their presidential years come to an end: “A president who a majority of the country disapproves of and a country even more split along ideological lines on, well, everything.”

This is despite all of these presidents’ genuine interest in nonpartisanship, Cillizza added, citing a National Journal story that read “Clinton pledged to transcend ‘brain-dead policies in both parties’ … Bush declared himself a ‘compassionate conservative’ who would govern as ‘a uniter, not a divider.’ Obama emerged with his stirring 2004 Democratic convention speech, evoking the shared aspirations of red and blue America, and took office embodying convergence and reconciliation.

“But by this point in their respective second terms, each man faced the stark reality that the country was more divided than it was when he took office.”

Recently, Republicans and Democrats have developed drastically different voter bases, according to Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal, and “Satisfying one coalition without alienating the other has become daunting, and many activists, especially in the GOP, now see any attempt at compromise between them as capitulation.”

Due in large part to this political polarization, Cillizza wrote, no president can ever be viewed as successful if he or she only manages to please, at best, half the country.

Brownstein focused on the unique, generally unshared benefits that each party has to offer, arguing that “these contrasting strengths present a formula for an extended electoral standoff that denies either party a lasting advantage anytime soon. That means more confrontation and stalemates in Washington—and more presidents who can't muster the support of more than half of America.”

But just because recent presidents may have failed doesn’t mean the job is impossible, others have argued.

The factors that Cillizza considers the new modern perils to the presidency aren’t new at all, according to James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal.

“The causal factors Cillizza identifies are considerably less novel than he seems to realize,” Taranto wrote. “True, the country is ideologically polarized now when compared with recent decades. But it isn't more polarized than ever. In the 1860s it actually split in two and fought a civil war — and the president at the time is now regarded as one of the greatest (and his predecessor as one of the worst).”

Others agree that difficult times do not mean a successful presidency is impossible. George Washington, according to Jack Marshall of Ethics Alarm, “had by far the most difficult job, being President of an unstable, new, confused nation with no precedents for his office, all while being second guessed by some of the most brilliant minds the nation ever produced, who were fighting among themselves to steer the country’s culture and government in radically different directions. He did a superb job, because Washington was a natural leader.”

Pundits were making arguments similar to Cillizza’s after Jimmy Carter’s disappointing presidency, according to Ethics Alarm, only to quickly be proved wrong by the popular Ronald Reagan.

Taranto also argues that Cillizza’s argument is based on the idea that a president’s popularity with the people is the only way to be considered a “successful” president, which is debatable.

“It is preposterous to suggest that because two presidents have failed to live up to Cillizza's standards of success (whatever they may be), it is impossible, or even ‘virtually’ so, for anyone to do so,” Taranto concluded.

Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2

1. Open Minded Mormon
Everett, 00,
July 29, 2014

Sure it is...

Look at Abraham Lincoln.

In his day --
1/2 of the Country loved him,
1/2 of the Country hated him...to the point of Civil War,
He was even SHOT for it.

History is the ultimate judge of their sucess -- NOT talk radio.

2. lost in DC
West Jordan, UT,
July 29, 2014

Is it impossible to be a successful president?

If you are incompetent, inexperienced, and your only qualifications are your ability to campaign and sow division, like our current POTUS it is impossible.

Open minded,
“sure it is…”
You are saying Lincoln was unsuccessful?
By what definition?

Maybe you need better filters.

3. Mark B
Eureka, CA,
July 29, 2014

It may be even harder to define just WHAT constitutes a "successful" president.

4. 2 bits
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
July 29, 2014

First need to define "Succeed".

If "success" = "be popular in the polls"... then the answer is "no".

As OMM pointed out, even Abraham Lincoln was not popular with about 50% of the country at the time. And they didn't even have "talk-radio" back then!

The President will usually be un-popular with a percentage of the population. I don't care if it's Bush or Obama. It's just the way it is. Hard-core partisans even hated Ronald Reagan, and he's the most popular President we have had in my generation.

I don't think you need to be popular to be a successful President. But we better define what we mean by "successful" before we get too far. Just to make sure we are all talking about the same thing.


If the trend continues... Hillary Clinton won't be a "successful" President either.

I don't know what could change this trend. NOBODY seems to have been able to do it in my generation (Except Bush for a few months after 9/11).

Maybe we need a 9/11 in each Presidency to bring us together?

5. FDRfan
Sugar City, ID,
July 29, 2014

"Successful" is in the eyes of the beholder. Calvin Coolidge was considered by some to be successful - he had enough digits to sign what was placed before him.