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Join the discussion: Is it impossible to be a successful president?

Published: Tuesday, July 29 2014 10:10 a.m. MDT

Presidents Bush, Obama, and Clinton discuss the aftereffects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

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Being a successful modern president of the United States is impossible, according to Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post. In this day and age, he wrote, no president can hope for an approval rating much higher than 50 percent, no matter what his policies or persona are like.

Others disagree, arguing that Cillizza is just making excuses for politicians who don’t effectively serve the American public.

Cillizza wrote that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have all seen similar outcomes as their presidential years come to an end: “A president who a majority of the country disapproves of and a country even more split along ideological lines on, well, everything.”

This is despite all of these presidents’ genuine interest in nonpartisanship, Cillizza added, citing a National Journal story that read “Clinton pledged to transcend ‘brain-dead policies in both parties’ … Bush declared himself a ‘compassionate conservative’ who would govern as ‘a uniter, not a divider.’ Obama emerged with his stirring 2004 Democratic convention speech, evoking the shared aspirations of red and blue America, and took office embodying convergence and reconciliation.

“But by this point in their respective second terms, each man faced the stark reality that the country was more divided than it was when he took office.”

Recently, Republicans and Democrats have developed drastically different voter bases, according to Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal, and “Satisfying one coalition without alienating the other has become daunting, and many activists, especially in the GOP, now see any attempt at compromise between them as capitulation.”

Due in large part to this political polarization, Cillizza wrote, no president can ever be viewed as successful if he or she only manages to please, at best, half the country.

Brownstein focused on the unique, generally unshared benefits that each party has to offer, arguing that “these contrasting strengths present a formula for an extended electoral standoff that denies either party a lasting advantage anytime soon. That means more confrontation and stalemates in Washington—and more presidents who can't muster the support of more than half of America.”

But just because recent presidents may have failed doesn’t mean the job is impossible, others have argued.

The factors that Cillizza considers the new modern perils to the presidency aren’t new at all, according to James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal.

“The causal factors Cillizza identifies are considerably less novel than he seems to realize,” Taranto wrote. “True, the country is ideologically polarized now when compared with recent decades. But it isn't more polarized than ever. In the 1860s it actually split in two and fought a civil war — and the president at the time is now regarded as one of the greatest (and his predecessor as one of the worst).”

Others agree that difficult times do not mean a successful presidency is impossible. George Washington, according to Jack Marshall of Ethics Alarm, “had by far the most difficult job, being President of an unstable, new, confused nation with no precedents for his office, all while being second guessed by some of the most brilliant minds the nation ever produced, who were fighting among themselves to steer the country’s culture and government in radically different directions. He did a superb job, because Washington was a natural leader.”

Pundits were making arguments similar to Cillizza’s after Jimmy Carter’s disappointing presidency, according to Ethics Alarm, only to quickly be proved wrong by the popular Ronald Reagan.

Taranto also argues that Cillizza’s argument is based on the idea that a president’s popularity with the people is the only way to be considered a “successful” president, which is debatable.

“It is preposterous to suggest that because two presidents have failed to live up to Cillizza's standards of success (whatever they may be), it is impossible, or even ‘virtually’ so, for anyone to do so,” Taranto concluded.

Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2

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