If the old saying that one can't be a great president in normal times is true, then President Barack Obama has an incredible opportunity. These times are anything but normal. The country continues to teeter on the verge of recession. Our military remains steeped in two wars. Partisan battles in the nation's capital rage on.
"You can only be a great president if there's a horrendous crisis and you deal with it well," says Robert Maranto, a professor in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. Maranto has always had a keen interest in the presidency and has edited books on the subject before. Now, he and UA professors Andrew Dowdle and Dirk C. van Raemdonck have edited "The Obama Presidency: Change and Continuity," written by political science professors and professionals from all over the country.
It's an attempt to put the Obama presidency in a larger context and assess its successes and failures. Writings range from a look at the functioning of the executive branch under Obama to the political realities the president has had to face. Maranto says a real effort was made to be even-handed.
"While as social scientists we lean a bit left on the whole, the editors and contributors actually are pretty varied in terms of ideology and experience," he says. "It's mainly Democrats but also a few Republicans, and at least nine of the book's contributors have some experience in government, two in very high level posts. I think that leads us to be a little more realistic about what presidents can and can't do, and makes the book a little more interesting than usual."
When asked if the scholars were able to find any real consensus on how Obama has performed, Maranto says he believes Obama's first term has been marked by major accomplishments and political backlash.
"I think what you'd probably get is not good or bad, but probably not living up to the opportunities," he says. "In part that's through lack of communication. One [of our writers] says that the president is great on soaring, lofty rhetoric and he's actually not too bad at detailed policy proposals. But there's not much in between. There's not a coherent story you can tell the American people. Clinton and Reagan did a lot better at that."
The book was finished in January, so some of the analysis seems almost quaint in light of the recent vitriolic debt ceiling debate in which Republicans essentially put their thumbs in their mouths, stood in the corner and refused to play with the other kids (behavior that was rewarded by Democrats).
The book's closing chapter is written by William Galston, one of the co-founders of the advocacy group No Labels and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. It's a good read. Galston, who worked in the Clinton administration, offers some advice for the president.
"In short, to avoid gridlock, Obama will have to govern less like the liberal antithesis to Ronald Reagan, a 'transformative' president whom he has professed to admire, and more like the heir to Bill Clinton, whose agenda he has regarded hitherto as excessively compromised and incremental.
"If he wants to succeed in the next two years of his presidency and stand for re-election from a position of strength, he will have to do what Clinton did after the debacle of 1994 — namely, defend what he cannot surrender, while negotiating seriously with the opposition in other areas."
The key word in that sentence is "seriously." Moving forward, it's likely that Republicans will show even less willingness to compromise than they have thus far, emboldened by their victory in the debt-ceiling battle. Partisanship seems to have dwarfed serious political conversation. The top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination met in Ames, Iowa, for a debate last week. When asked how many of them would walk away from a budget deal that included 10 times the amount of spending cuts as it did tax increases, all of them raised their hand. That is not the manner in which serious public servants respond to the country's problems.