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For Obama, crisis may outweigh record

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
President Barack Obama meets with officials about the Gulf oil disaster in Grand Isle, Louisiana, last month.
President Barack Obama meets with officials about the Gulf oil disaster in Grand Isle, Louisiana, last month.
  • Democrats are seeking to run on substance of Obama's legislative record
  • Julian Zelizer: That could be a risky strategy, since leadership in a crisis may count for more
  • Presidents Carter, George H.W. Bush, also had substantive records, Zelizer says
  • He says Carter, Bush weren't re-elected in part because of leadership issue

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security: From World War II to the War on Terrorism," and of a book on former President Jimmy Carter, to be published next fall by Times Books.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- A cartoonist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Steve Breen, captured a big political challenge that President Obama is now confronting.

The cartoon features four frames, each with a picture of the president. Over the first two frames, with the president barely smiling, he says, "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and "It's time I displayed some rage over the worst oil spill in U.S. history." The third frame shows him staring with a poker face. The restrained smile returns in the fourth frame, which reads, "Want to see it again?"

As Democrats move into the 2010 midterm elections and start thinking about 2012, the administration is struggling to deal with two difficult crises, both of which have generated concerns about the president's response and the perceptions of him as a leader.

The first is the oil leak in the Gulf, one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in American history. The second is an unemployment rate that continues to hover near 10 percent. The slow economic recovery has still failed to make a significant dent in the number of Americans who don't have jobs. American voters are frustrated and angry.

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Democrats are counting on President Obama's substantial legislative record to provide the best selling points on the campaign trail, enough to counter any concerns about his detached demeanor.

While Republicans are the party of no, Democrats say, this White House has produced a series of important bills that prove just how competent this president is: the economic stimulus, health care reform, extending the the financial bailout and most likely financial regulation.

Democrats have started to compare Obama to FDR or LBJ, counteracting the more problematic comparison to the one-term President Jimmy Carter.

As Jonathan Alter, Newsweek columnist and author of "The Promise," recently said: "Just by getting health care through ... [Barack Obama is] now standing alone with Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson in terms of domestic achievement."

Yet a long list of accomplishments is not sufficient on the campaign trail. When Obama addresses the nation Tuesday night, he has a crucial opportunity to express his sentiment about the oil spill and outline to the country how he intends to bring this crisis to an end.

Responding to the critics is important. The public often reacts strongly to perceptions of whether a president exhibits commanding leadership skills, particularly in a crisis. Whether this is fair or not, that is the way that politics works.

As the president recently told Politico's Roger Simon, "I want to be absolutely clear that part of leadership always involves being able to capture people's imaginations, their sense of hope, their sense of possibility, being able to move people to do things they didn't think they could do. The irony, of course, is, is that the rap on me before I got to office was that that's all I could do -- right?"

History shows how perceptions can become extremely damaging politically. While popular memory usually depicts Carter as incompetent and ineffective, he had many achievements.

Carter was able to secure passage of an economic stimulus bill, government reorganization, airline deregulation, energy reform and an ethics in government law. He created the Department of Education. On foreign policy, the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties marked a significant departure in U.S. relations toward Latin America.

The Camp David Accords constituted the first major peace agreement between the Israelis and one of its Arab neighbors, Egypt. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter -- who had already pushed for a significant increase in defense spending -- announced a crucial reorientation of national security policy with a new emphasis on protecting the Persian Gulf.

None of this helped on the campaign trail. In the election of 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter with 489 electoral college votes.

Republicans focused on the negative perceptions of Carter's ability as a leader, especially his inability to handle the Iran hostage crisis or to end stagflation. While Carter talked about his record when running against Reagan, Reagan spoke to voters about a president who did not appear have a handle on the crises he faced.

President George H.W. Bush was no slouch either. On domestic policy, he could point to several notable achievements, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. He also had an important deficit reduction package that took the first serious steps toward reducing the nation's fiscal imbalance.

Just as important, he could point to the arrest of Manuel Noriega in Panama as well as Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. effort that struck back at Iraq for invading Kuwait. It was the first successful major military operation since Vietnam. Indeed, when Operation Desert Storm ended, most pundits predicted that President Bush would be unbeatable.

Yet he wasn't. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeated him, targeting Bush's failure to respond to the economic recession. During one town hall debate, Bush's inability to respond to a question about the effect of the recession, and Clinton's masterful interaction, seemed to embody everything that was missing in the White House.

Democrats should thus be a bit cautious in banking too much just on the record, and they should be concerned about how the public perceives President Obama as he tries to resolve the oil spill and jobless rate. Growing doubts about his capacity as a leader as a result of these issues can become harder to shake over time.

As Brookings Institution expert Thomas Mann said in an interview with the Associated Press, "The public has come to believe the stimulus and financial bailout were of no use in helping the economy, contrary to evidence suggesting otherwise. Health care reform remains a controversial measure. The bottom line is that the public is scared, they're angry, they're in a foul mood and not inclined to see great victories or achievements."

The midterm elections will be the first real test to gauge what voters are thinking. Thus far the primaries and special elections have been all over the place, giving hope to Democratic incumbents and Tea Party activists alike.

But Obama can't afford to wait to see what the outcome is. He must start Tuesday, with the address to the nation. He needs to act with greater resolve in response to the twin crises of his second year or he might find that the most impressive list of accomplishments doesn't mean much when voters go into the ballot box.

In his talk about the Gulf, Obama must stop complaining about the press or simply saying that he is doing everything possible.

Instead, he must genuinely convey his frustration and concern about what is happening and lay out a specific agenda about what the federal government intends to do over the next few months to help bring the environmental crisis to an end and to diminish the risks that another one occurs soon.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.

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