Presidential Tectonics

Presidential elections are tense moments in an American life. They permeate the two years prior and dictate at least the following four. Electoral omnipresence was not always the norm. Prior to the mid-20th century, party primaries were insider games, inaccessible and unexposed to the public. In contrast, contemporary Americans bleed presidential politics. Cultural obsession with fame, ubiquitous and instantaneous information, a 24–7 hivemind trapped in its honey; it all adds up to America’s unhealthy relationship with its president.

Enough ink and bits have been spent on how ugly the 2016 election has been. I am thinking instead of transitions. I am transitioning from a cautious optimism towards my favored candidate’s prospects to a grim acceptance that we are likely looking at a Clinton-Trump brawl this year. We are transitioning from the imperfect but so enlightening Obama era into what feels like a dystopian, futuristic version of the past.

Hillary Clinton proudly named her husband as the man she would put in charge of righting the economic ship in America. She cites the relative positive trend of the American economy in the 1990s as proof of Bill’s magic touch. Presidents often receive credit or blame for results that are largely out of their control. While economic policy matters, no major reforms can be enacted without Congress. Which party controlled Congress during Bill Clinton’s presidency? The Grand Old one. If Bill Clinton can claim victory against economic doldrums, so too can Newt Gingrich.

What did Clinton and his Republicans accomplish? They deregulated derivatives and repealed Glass-Steagall, political decisions that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing recession. They primed the economy for a recession that began almost immediately after Clinton left office. Did the economy just suddenly decide to fall apart when George W. Bush became president? Doubtful.

Despite his earned reputation as the first Democrat to win two terms since Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton was not the harbinger of a new age. In many ways, Clinton was a natural continuation of Reagan-Bush. Bill Clinton won the presidency with only 43% of the vote while incumbent President George H.W. Bush received 37.4%. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Bill Clinton, change maker. Ross Perot, the real outsider in 1992, earned 19% after a fumbled campaign.

In the low-turnout 2000 election, Americans sighed and voted essentially for a tie game. Clintonism was rejected, perhaps because it had felt so similar to what had proceeded it, yet Bushism was not fully embraced. President George W. Bush was greeted with a collective “meh” that rang from sea to sea. Americans were not so apathetic about the 43rd president when he left office.

George W. Bush was a transformative president because, as they say, “everything changed” after 9/11. His reactions in the wake of the tragedy define us today and will for many years more. Bush’s radical doctrine abroad and mismanagement at home empowered a powerful opposition that swept the Democrats into power in 2006 and 2008. I contend that it would not have mattered much whether the Democrats nominated Barack Hussein Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton. The country was ready to vote for change.

And change has come, though perhaps not what we expected. I count myself as a 2008 Obama voter who was disappointed by what followed. Part of this disappointment is rooted in the president’s actions: his War on Terror 2.0, an economic team packed with Clinton’s ill advisers, and an aggressive crackdown on journalism and freedom of information. Part of it is simply growing up and learning that the system itself is rotten. The national Democratic Party is a rotten institution. The United States Congress is a rotten institution. Capitalism is a rotten institution.

However, incremental change does help people. The Affordable Care Act is an overly complicated law, bloated by backbreaking corporate compromise. It nonetheless improves the lives of millions of people. The Obama Administration’s decision to defend the rights of transgender students matters. Its executive actions to ease deportations and regulate greenhouse gas emissions matter. A black president matters. Obama did not smash the state. He did not dismantle capitalism. He didn’t even deliver a public option. Obama nonetheless represents the promise of something better, the hope that the future may not be as bleak as it seems.

I had hoped that Barack Obama would be viewed as a great transitional president, one that laid the stepping stones towards a more equitable, just country. I fear that Obama’s likely successors will take a step or many steps backwards when we cannot afford to waste any more time.

I believe that incremental policies can improve lives. I also know that the machine is unsustainable. It will consume us all unless we make drastic changes to how we live, how we treat each other, and how we govern. Transitions are tough, but we need them. We need one now. Will we get the one we need or the one we deserve?

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