Two presidents, two traumatic crises, two half-terms judged by what didn't happen instead of what did. The two presidents are George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who respectively prevented further terrorist attacks on American soil and a repeat of the Great Depression.
And that's where the similarities end. When the nation is attacked or at war, citizens rally around the president. When the economy is terrible, they desert the president – even if, as last week's exit polls show, less than a quarter blame him for the mess.
Democrats should be on notice: They're on a short leash with the American people. Two years in charge of the White House and Congress, and boom, what have you done for us lately? Not enough. You're outta here, in one-third the time voters gave Bush and the GOP to control Washington and work their will on the country.
Are Democrats on a shorter leash than Republicans? Is there a trust gap between the parties? Are we now a center-right country, or a country that swerves back and forth, or a country merely going through the "hate" phase of its love-hate relationship with government?
It sure seems sometimes that voters don't give Democrats the benefit of the doubt. You can enumerate any number of mistakes made by Democrats and Obama, but none to date compare with invading Iraq for reasons that didn't pan out, and then mismanaging the war in a spectacular and tragic manner. Yet Bush was re-elected in 2004, at the height of the violence and chaos, and so was the GOP Congress.
Bush himself was the fourth Republican elected to two terms as president since Franklin Roosevelt. Democrats have had exactly one: Bill Clinton. And while voters gave four more years to Republican Ronald Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, they denied that extension to Democrat Al Gore, Clinton's vice president (the asterisk being that Gore won a half million more votes even as he lost the electoral vote).
Some non-partisan analysts say there are too few presidents to draw the conclusion that Democrats get the short end. Sometimes history turns on personalities, tactics or historical circumstances. The Bushes were aided by weak Democratic opponents in 1988 and 2004. Gore ran in a nation fatigued by the Clinton scandals and impeachment. Jimmy Carter faced serious problems including a recession, U.S. hostages in Iran and a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
As for all those two-term GOP presidents, Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report
, said they were elected and re-elected to balance out a Congress held by Democrats for 40 years until Republicans took over in 1995. He also said the creation of Social Security and Medicare – high-profile Democratic successes that expanded government during the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations -- gave rise to an "anti-government counterweight."
That was exacerbated in the 1970s. James Thurber, head of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies
, said the Watergate scandal created a trust-in-government gap that persists to this day. "Mainly trust has been going down. That affects whoever is in the majority," he said.
It is a particular disadvantage to be the party more identified with big or activist government. Ronald Reagan increased federal spending and federal workers. George W. Bush added a new Medicare benefit to cover prescription drugs and begged Congress to pass the $700 billion bank bailout. Clinton, the Democrat, declared that "the era of big government is over," shrank the federal workforce and balanced the federal budget. Even so, in the public mind, Democrats are firmly entrenched as the party of big government.
That image has been reinforced mightily during Obama's first two years. His term to date has been marked by expansions of government to cope with the economic crisis he inherited (the bank and auto bailouts, the stimulus package and tighter regulation of Wall Street), as well as new government roles in health care and the student loan program that Obama had promised in his campaign. It would be shocking, really, if all of that had not given rise to the tea party movement and escalating resistance to federal spending and regulation.
Democratic strategist Matt Bennett, a vice president of the centrist think tank Third Way, said it may be hard to document a historical pattern of built-in bias against Democrats. But at the moment, he said, "it feels like there is a structural barrier to Democrats. It feels right now like we're pushing a rock up a hill all the time with much of the electorate."
It's a fact-based feeling. The Republican base
in 2010 "is twice as big as ours," Bennett said. His group examined voter ideology in the national exit poll and found that liberals were 20 percent of the electorate in 2006 and 2010. Conservatives, meanwhile, went from 32 percent in 2006 to 41 percent in 2010. Furthermore, while Democrats held on to 55 percent of moderates, that was worse than their 60 percent in 2006.
Independents are swinging back and forth rapidly and dramatically. In the era of cable, the Internet and social networking, Rothenberg said, it is easy to make people angry and to raise money for ads that stoke the anger. "The speed of news and the polarization in society make it harder for politicians these days," he said.
Republicans were beneficiaries of the new volatility this year, but they could lose their hold on independents as quickly as Democrats did. In fact it already happened to them once, in the 2006 midterms. So far in the 21st century, there is no default setting for the GOP.
Maybe voters were more patient or maybe just more traumatized, but in 2002, 14 months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush gained eight seats in the House. Obama has lost more than 60 after facing a crisis that was arguably just as grave – the seemingly imminent collapse of the U.S. banking system and economy.
Each of those events was profoundly frightening in its way. The unforgettable horror of the attacks and the shock of suddenly realizing our oceans could no longer keep us safe. Then, seven years later, the daily announcements of mass layoffs, the stomach-lurching disappearance of savings and home values or even homes themselves, the questions (how bad can it get?) and the specter of another terrible new normal taking hold. The country's future seemed balanced on a razor's edge.
Bush benefitted from Americans uniting against the common enemy of al Qaeda. Obama not only has been punished for the tanked economy, he and his party and even a few Republicans have been punished for taking the bold steps that staved off catastrophe. Democrats and Obama have a shot at electoral redemption in 2012. If that doesn't work, their best option is to take a tip from Bush and leave judgments to history. By then, he has said, "We'll all be dead."