Back to town comes Barack Obama, to plummeting polls and sour columns rolling his presidency into the hearse. The memory doesn’t offer much comfort, but the previous two Democratic presidents endured similar rentrées to the nation’s capital.
When Bill Clinton returned from his outing to Martha’s Vineyard in the late summer of 1993, the collapse of his administration was already three months old. He was well into his rebirth cycle as a committed Republican. As an opposing, progressive challenge to business as usual, even by the wan standard of its own timid promises, his presidency had decisively failed by the closing week of May, on the last Saturday of which he signaled surrender by recruiting the old Nixon/Reagan/Bush hand David Gergen as his new public relations chief.
Jimmy Carter achieved his zenith as an agent of positive change on his second day in office: “I, Jimmy Carter, President of the United States, do hereby grant a full, complete and unconditional pardon to: (1) all persons who may have committed any offense between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973 in violation of the Military Selective Service Act…and (2) all persons heretofore convicted, irrespective of the date of conviction, of any offense committed between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973 in violation of the Military Selective Service Act…restoring to them full political, civil and other rights.”
On August 6, 1979, Carter formally surrendered power by installing Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve, tasked with waging war on inflation, with large sacrifices imposed on those who had voted for Carter.
In terms of popularity and political strength, Clinton peaked at the Democratic National Convention in New York. Decline was not long delayed. On election day in November 1992, the long sunset had already commenced. By the time of the inauguration, the Clinton administration was already low in the water. The president-elect and his advisers had destroyed their room for maneuver in the formulation of economic policy. They fanned budget-cutting hysteria by accepting the silly Republican claim that–surprise!–the prospective deficit was going to be more severe than expected.
By the time Clinton took the presidential oath, his presidency was, as anything other than a vehicle for economic orthodoxy and Wall Street wisdom, in the ditch. A few days later, he pushed the wreck into the crusher with his catastrophic handling of the issue of gays in the military. Before the week was out, the Pentagon had its majority in Congress and the Christian right was trumpeting renewal and victory. The health insurance debacle toppled all surviving hopes for constructive change.