Fail, Repeat

Presidents Never Can Seem to Learn to Stop Overreaching

Obama’s overreaching, to the detriment of his presidency—on health care and now the filibuster—is part of a historical pattern in U.S. politics. But that doesn’t make any less painful.

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There comes a certain point in life when we realize our parents are just like us, only older. They don’t have any more answers than we do, and the confusions, questions, miscues, and passions that each of us experience are, most likely, experiences they share.

If you were operating under the assumption that your elders had drunk from a deeper font of wisdom, the realization can be disorienting. Or it can be liberating, further proof that we are all human and what separates us is probably not as great as that which unites.

So it is with our politicians. Our political life seems to have a recurrent pattern that, perhaps not surprisingly, mirrors so much of our non-political life. We invest our faith in politicians who seem to understand the world better than we do, only to be disappointed.

We don’t seem to learn, but then neither do the politicians. Again and again, we see presidents overreaching on a key mission of their presidency, resulting in the opposite of their desired effect.

Sadly, it seems to happen to almost every president. Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 campaign reelection slogan was “He kept us out of the war.” By the time he left office, more than 300,000 Americans had been killed or wounded in our first foreign war, and the Versailles Treaty had helped set the stage for World War II.

Jump to the Vietnam era and Lyndon Johnson, who famously proclaimed, “I will not be the first president to lose a war.” Vietnam was fought in the echo of JFK’s inaugural declaration that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The war that was supposed to prove America’s near limitless ability to extend power instead revealed our limits and achieved the opposite results of the intended goals.

The pattern of presidential overreach thwarting achievement is not limited to noble goals. Richard Nixon was terrified of defeat, so he went to extraordinary and illegal lengths to eliminate the possibility of defeat. In doing so, he guaranteed his destruction and humiliation.

After 9/11, George W. Bush championed a “freedom agenda,” launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though two of the world’s most repressive regimes were deposed, neither country is a democratic success.

That brings us to Barack Obama. He was elected with a pledge to “bend history’s arc” and restore faith in government. By overreaching on health care, he has managed to achieve precisely the opposite effect. Those who were previously among his most ardent supporters, young voters and women, have been especially disillusioned by the reality of Obamacare. The one standard of Obama’s presidency, a belief in his personal honesty, has plummeted.

Today Obama is about as popular as Nixon was at the same point in his term, with similar negative ratings on trustworthiness.

Call it the law of unintended consequences. What you least desire can happen, particularly when the passion of a goal results in overzealous actions.

So it is sure to be with the repeal of the judicial filibuster. Gratifying as it may be to the president to reverse his position on the filibuster, majority confirmation will be a tool sure to be enjoyed by the next Republican president and Senate. But even more important, it establishes a precedent of acceptability of abolishing long held parliamentary procedures that are disruptive to a president’s agenda.

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While the repeal was limited to federal judicial nominees, the president’s argument of the pure morality of majority vote can easily be used to abolish a filibuster for Supreme Court judges or for legislation.

It took 60 Senate votes to pass Obamacare. Under the president’s logic, the next Republican president and Senate can abolish filibusters for legislation and repeal Obamacare with 51 votes. Every Democrat would regret the expediency of last week’s immediate gains under such circumstances.

In his frustration in dealing with Republicans, Obama has surely given the next Republican Senate and president considerably more power. And the next candidate for president who argues that government should be empowered to handle complicated tasks with considerable impact on our lives certainly will be met with a more skeptical public.

There’s a reason that a constant of every presidency is the rapid aging of the president. It’s a terrible job.