Meacham: Don't Wait for a Thank You, Mr. President

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Feeling underappreciated is among the most common of human emotions. From time to time we all indulge in at least a bit of self-pity. The sense that the world does not understand our greatness or our gifts can manifest itself in different ways. Some people may be maudlin, others angry, but one thing is universal to the condition: frustration.

It was a frustrated Robert Gibbs who spoke harshly about what he called the “professional left” last week in an interview with the newspaper The Hill. Liberals, the White House press secretary was saying, are not sufficiently grateful for the work President Obama has done on behalf of progressive causes. Gibbs’s remark must at least partially reflect the president’s own views, and it surely represents the prevailing view of Obama’s inner circle.

The Obama White House is now feeling the effects of an inescapable historical fact: presidents rarely enjoy prolonged popularity in real time. They just do not. In memory we recast reality and choose to think—wrongly—that the leaders we consider great were thought of in such terms in their own eras.

Yet from Washington (who nearly retired in frustration after a single term) and Jefferson (who was bitterly hated by Federalists) to Jackson (who was attacked as an American Bonaparte) to FDR (his enemies referred to him as “that man”) to Reagan (who was thought to be a nuclear cowboy), even the most revered figures in our history have suffered what Obama is suffering, and what a President McCain would be suffering, too: the corrosive effects of a restless present that cares little about the past, even the very recent past, and wants to know only what you are going to do for it next. One of the inherent tragedies of public life is that it attracts men and women who crave approval and affection while the nature of the undertaking—the making of choices, the compromises, the inevitable failures—severely limits the amount of approval and affection that flow from the many to the one. That is a key distinction between the winning of elections and the governing of a country, for elections at least give the winner a frisson of joy at a race well run. But it is just that: a frisson, not a sustainable stream.

If a president can accept that his friends will always bay for more and his foes will always just bay, he stands a better chance of remaining vaguely sane than if he makes the (totally understandable) mistake of expecting people to thank him for his work.

Politics does not operate that way. Bill Clinton, a terrific student of such matters, says that the country should be getting back in what he has called the “future business,” by which he means the present ought to be making some sacrifices for the good of coming generations. The problem is that such moments—Clinton’s old Georgetown professor Carroll Quigley called it “future preference”—are the exception, not the rule, in American life.

I think Obama, like other presidents, intellectually understands this, but human nature is not suspended upon the taking of the oath of office. If anything, the emotional and psychological factors that shape all of us are magnified, not diminished, at the highest levels.

And so it makes common biographical sense that the president and the people around him are sore about things. You do not get credit, really, for the averting of crises, or for their amelioration, and so the disconnect between the White House and the public begins there. From the perspective of the West Wing, the Obama team inherited economic and military disasters that could very well have gotten worse than they have. Why, then, they wonder, do voters not appreciate the administration more? Why the low poll numbers, the general grumpiness, the low confidence in our institutions?

Because the public lives in a world where jobs are scarce, and if you cannot find work, it does not matter to you that there could be even fewer jobs if this policy had not been followed or that bill passed. What matters to you is that the great American middle class is in serious danger of disappearing as the central organizing cultural and political element of our national life. That, I believe, is the more universal fear at work now, and for all the political class’s talk about this primary or that poll, more Americans feel more vulnerable in more existential ways than they have in a very long time. The rescue and recovery of the middle class is likely to be the chief task of this decade.

The president knows this. He talks about it (if episodically), and he is governing in ways that will, he hopes, bring prosperity and security to an ever-wider part of America. If he succeeds, the future will thank him, and that is where leaders get thanked.