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One-third of the way through Obama's term, are Americans tiring of a legislator as president?

Republican president Warren Harding with Babe Ruth at opening of Yankee Stadium 4-123

American voters have taken many zigs and zags over the years when choosing their country's chief executive.

But one of the amazing consistencies is: They prefer chief executives in the executive office. Five of the last six presidents have been executives -- four governors and one sitting vice president.

The only exception is the current incumbent, Barack Obama, who as his bipartisan critics tried to point out in 2007-08, had never even run a candy store, let alone a country. He was a law lecturer, a state senator and, briefly, a U.S. senator. He is one of only three sitting senators elected president since the 19th century. Neither of the other two -- Warren Harding (see photo) and John Kennedy -- had second terms.

Overall, a new Rasmussen Reports poll indicated Wednesday, only 42% of Americans currently approve of Obama's job, while 57% disapprove. Or compare Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's 66% state approval for his hands-on spill work vs 60% disapproval for the presidential visits, all four of them now.

Fact is, the two main political parties didn't give American voters a....

... choice in 2008, nominating legislators for three of the tickets' four spots -- Obama, Joe Biden and John McCain. The fourth -- gee, her name escapes us right now -- was an elected top state executive, who seemed to gather more public attention than any of the others.

Let's see, looking back a ways here: 2004 incumbent president beats sitting senator and his senator running mate. 2000: Incumbent governor beats ex-senator, sitting vice president. 1996: Incumbent president beats ex-senator and his ex-House running mate. 1992: Governor beats incumbent president thanks to third-party bid by a corporate chief executive.

1988: Sitting vice president beats governor. 1984: Incumbent president beats ex-senator, ex-vice president. 1980: Governor beats incumbent president. 1976: Governor beats unelected vice president, formerly of the House, who succeeded Nixon.

Earlier there were two presidents who'd been vice presidents and senators before that (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon), Kennedy and former Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who headed Allied European forces in World War II and was famous for his decisiveness in successfully invading France on June 6, 1944.

Harry Truman, a former senator, inherited the presidency upon Franklin RoosGeneral later President Dwight D 
Eisenhowerevelt's death, ran successfully in 1948 against a governor and then with his unpopularity mounting, opted out of a re-election effort. (Yes, FDR was a former state senator, but that was brief and followed by a governorship, among other jobs.)

So why the American political distaste for non-executives. Or to put it less delicately, legislators?

For one thing, the jobs have starkly contrasting personalities.

While political executives and legislators can both be worthy politicians, one is charged with executing, the other with maneuvering, compromising, committeeing, a bill in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Voting "Present" is not a realistic option for executives. Even at his lowest approval ebb yet (42%), Obama is still much better approved as president than his recent colleagues of either party in Congress.

For legislators, there's always another day, another session, another amendment, a committee study to authorize. Obama's roughly five-dozen healthcare town halls last year could easily be seen as a hearing.

Besides Obama's deference to a Democratic Congress in such matters as writing the $787 billion economic stimulus bill as his first major presidential legislative signing, he also seems to favor commissions -- to study the deficit solutiDemocrat Barack Obama as a Senatoron, the oil spill cause. Legislators can notoriously be for something before they are against it; executives either sign it or not.

Take this malaise-like quote from Obama's Tuesday Oval Office address (Full text right here):

"But we have to recognize that despite our best efforts, oil has already caused damage to our coastline and its wildlife. And sadly, no matter how effective our response is, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done."

No doubt a heartfelt statement by the former legislator and/or his team of speechwriters, not to mention his chief of staff, another former legislator, Rahm Emanuel.

But those defeatist words are hardly Churchillian in their ringing call to fight the enemy on the beaches, no matter what the cost. Do Americans value a commander-in-chief who says things like, well, our best wasn't good enough this time but we're really gonna recover well, though it'll probably take a pretty long time? And lots more money. Meanwhile, let's build more windmills.

As the perceptive Ben Domenech writes:

Instead of action and responsible decision-making, Obama naturally turns to Congressional-staff crafted legislative solutions, commissions and committee-hearings — exactly the kind of approaches designed to insulate elected politicians from the ramifications of a vote or a decision.

It’s the difference between a leader and a follower, between someone confident enough to make a decision and live with the consequences, and someone who wants to cover their ass, between an executive who says: 'I decided' and a legislator who says: 'They recommended.'

With Obama's initial presidential term only 35% complete, this is a revealing pattern of behavior apparently sensed by many Americans and worth watching closely in the coming weeks and months.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: New York Yankees (President Harding at opening of Yankee Stadium April 18, 1923, with an obviously thrilled baseball player); Dwight Eisenhower Archives; Associated Press (Obama as senator).

Comments () | Archives (37)

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Andrew Malcolm,

Who are you and what are you doing at the L.A. Times? I said yesterday I still can't beleive that I am reading this on the L.A. Times. And a few other not so nice things about the Times. I hope you own Kevlar AM. I live in NY and grew up in L.A. so I read the sports section only. Thanks to Drudge I saw the blog yesterday. Now could you call the N.Y. Times and wake them up also?

(AM responds: Great news, Dean, to see you back again today. Hope you keep it up as do many others. We've been here three years having fun thanks to the bosses and we don't intend to stop. Spread the word please.)

Great comparisons. In instances like this we need a leader that is not afraid to take the reigns and lead... well there be mistakes, yes. But at least something is being done.

Americans are tiring of hack bloggists,quasi political anylist wannabes, and insipid smarthy antogonists. That my friend is what AMERICANS are tired of. God bless our country and God bless our president.

@Jim Peal I agree "we the people" are tired of the Dems/Libs/Commie Progressives and we will deal with them in Nov

In the GOP primary, I would never have voted for McCain, for this very reason. Every sitting Senator looks in the mirror and sees a president. Their desire to run is pure vanity.

Unfortunately, by the time of my state's primary, McCain was the only one standing, so I crossed over and voted for Hillary.

Judgment to lead my backside.

Elections have consequences.

Ah yes, because you are critical of Obama you must be a hack! Can't you see he's the best President we've ever had and all the bad stuff is not his fault? It's Bushes.

Re Jim Peal: Too funny. Democrats get religion AND patriotism all in one fell swoop.

I for the life of me could not understand the constant liberal talking points of 'she's just one heartbeat away from the Presidency' and she has no experience!!! Seriously? And, the heartbeat they elected to Commander in Chief, top CEO of the US....with the 'plugged' heartbeat away from the elected CnC.. zip, zero nothin' in the way of experience.

I will never understand those that voted for Oblahblah..talker in chief.

From Chicago (no one makes it in Chicago Politics without being a crook or knowing a few..)

Never voted anything other than 'present'
Spent his entire Senate Career running for President (really?)

Thanks, AM, I am now regularly bookmarked to your blog.. I am a Southern Californian that hadn't looked at the times in over 20 years......I am hooked now..

Well, I was going to comment, but I can't compete with "smarthy antogonists."

Aftr comparing President Bush waiving the Jones Act in 3 DAYS after Katrina to President Obama refusing to waive the Jones Act (the best Gibbs can say is "no one has asked for a waiver") FOR HEAVENS SAKE....OBAMA....REQUEST IT AND WAIVE AND GET THOSE SHIPS INTO THE GULF TO HELP WITH RECOVERY PROCESS! And after comparing President Bush who got a scared Nation and its people united immediately after 9/11...notice: PRESIDENT BUSH DID NOT SEND A LAWYER TO NY TO HELP THE CLEAN UP PROCESS!!!!!!! While Obama refused to let Louisianna build SAND (hear that?) SAND BARRIERS to keep oil out of the marshlands. BUT OBAMA SAID "NO...YOU CANNOT BUILD SAND BARRIERS." 30 DAYS LATER...THE USELESS FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SAYS "OK TO BUILD THEM.".......OF COURSE, THE OIL WAS ALREADY IN THE MARSHLANDS...

I keep watching this trend and it better change soon or we will all know Obama is letting this go on and on and on without accepting all of the help that has been offered to our country to get his (i hate that color know...i would not buy stock into any "green" company because i do not like their business jammed down my throat cap and trade and "kill private sector oil companies and we'll run them"....sound familiar?

Hahaha... I have to agree with Dean's sentiment (though I didn't grow up in L.A. nor do I read the sports section, seeing as Big 12, the Cowboys and the Rangers are giving my fill of sports)... but if it wasn't for Drudge I never would have found out about your blog either...

While technically Obama was a legislator, he was one with no accomplishments. What was elected was the community organizer president. And he is no better at being president than he was at community organizing.

Very nice. You intellectual types got this idiot elected when you KNEW he was unqualified. You dared to criticize Sarah Palin as unqualified because "she had only been Governor of Alaska for a short time and then she had only been a mayor of a small town". What was Obama except a community organizer who got elected to the Senate briefly and then spent his time voting present? Now you dare to criticize your messiah? Hey you morons are the ones who pulled the lever for Obama so you have ZERO credibility with those of us who knew what this empty suit was from the beginning. For "intellectuals" you sure are stupid.

I really hope that you purposefully left out the name of the "baseball player" in the picture. Because, if you don't know who that is, then I take everything you write with a grain of salt. :)

Who elected Jim Peale to speak for "Americans"?

I was going to post that there must be something wrong with my browser - it says I'm at the LAT. But Dean beat me to it. An excellent piece, Andrew. This is the kind of thing Americans need to think about, to break the delusional spell Axlerod and the media cast over them two years ago. May God bless America.

(AM responds: Thanks, Paul, for your kind words. Pls see my response to Bob below. Appreciate your reading and hope you spread the word about us far and wide.)

Doesn't "legislator" suggest that he actually had something to do with legislation?

Campaigner, I think, is more appropriate, and certainly better explains the hyperpartisanship of the White House in this administration.

good article. ive always personally preferred our C''nC to have some sort of leadership experience, but i really like the way you broke it down.

another big difference (i believe) between those of the legislative background and their more common counterparts (governors/generals) is the nature of the people that surround them each day. governors and generals (as well as other officers in the military) have the unique position of wielding much power, while being in regular contact with average people. they make big decisions and are able to stay relatively grounded.

legislators are completely different. many (especially senators) are lawyers - which means they've spent lots of time at a big name school, and most likely come from money. not only is their experience with "the real world" (aka "holding a real job" that involves getting your hands dirty) seriously limited, but they are literally surrounded by others just as limited or more so. when i think of a senator, the picture i get in my mind is of an aristocrat in an ivory tower - prattling on about how we should be doing "this" or "that", when he (literally) has no friggin clue.

Andrew, where do you hide over there in the Times building? do you post whilst your associates sleep? 2 days in a row your posts are spot on, how do you get past the editor (I mean censor)? keep up the good work, heck if the Times had more guys like you on staff I might subscribe again, I quit 10 years ago because of the propaganda, you sir are a breath of fresh air,

(AM responds: Thanks for the kind words, Bob. But give credit where credit is due. The LAT editors asked me to design a blog I'd want to write. So I did. And here we are 3 years later and they love it. So pls help spread the word. We'll just write more. :--)) )

Andrew, nice research. I See you're going to need someone with "real" intellect to show you the "correct template" for thinking. (I jest).

I'd bet dollars to donuts, Mr. Peal never once uttered the phrase, 'God bless our country and God bless our president,' when Dubya was President.

This presidency is effectively over.


Well, it's not like I didn't try to tell anyone who would listen - Obama has NO executive experience whatsoever. This blather that running for President somehow gave him the experience needed to actually BE President is incoherent at best, idiotic (and suicidal) at worst. It's also untrue - Obama ran his campaign in about the same way that a lead actor directs the movie that he's in - i.e., he was told to stand there, say this, look stern, look nice, and keep saying "hope and change" as much as possible.

While I'm at it - what are the odds that we would have a huge oil spill, just a month AFTER Obama opened up more locations for offshore oil drilling, that it would be caused by the world's leading "new energy" company, that Obama would be oh so slow in responding to it so as to maximize the damage, and that all this would be followed up by a speech saying that the answer is alternative fuels? Ok, I'll just say it - Obama and the people controlling him planned this spill and knew it was going to happen a LOOONG time ago! That's why Obama is so dispassionate - how can you get worked up about something that you knew was going to happen? The plan is to force the US into wasting yet further trillions of dollars going after the myth of alternative fuels - with the outcome that the US is bankrupt and no longer the world's dominant super power. That's right folks - Obama, many congresspeople, and many folks in the media are taking orders from people OUTSIDE the US. It sucks, but I just had to say it. Now what the heck are we gonna do about it?

No, Americans are not tiring of a legislator, they are tiring of an utterly unqualified community organizer, with zero experience ever accomplishing anything. Obama never legislated anything either. He voted "present" in Illinois and started campaigning for president the minute he became a US Senator.

Americans are also resoundingly rejecting "progressivism".

O.k. I'll give them credit, Thanks L. A. Times, I'll be back Andrew, Thanks for the insight,

(AM responds: And thanks for checking back. While you're here, check out the bad hair day item; Click on the Ticket's name above to refresh.)

Good point. I think our mayor is afflicted with the same problem: good legislator; bad executive.

Doris Kearns Goodwin made this exact argument when Dole ran against Clinton. She explained to Tim Russert how senators don't make good presidents. Funny how she felt so differently with Obama. Funny how all liberals felt differently with Obama. Funny how liberals don't seem to run anything (except their mouth) of real note. Not so funny how Obama is not running anything, either.

How on earth can Obama be called a legislator? He never submitted any bills, and rarely even voted, unless the measure was ultra-left, or if it involved promoting abortions. The Senate was a pit stop in his Presidential campaign. Not that that is a bad thing. The only thing he would have learned with more time in the Senate would be how to be a better liar. He never did much as a lawyer either except rabble-rousing. But the point of the article is good. We have to find ways to reduce the power and the involvement of lawyers in government. Lawyers are not trained to manage anything, they are trained to be clever at using language and procedures to convince people that up is down and down is up. I think the key is to make government so unattractive and so unrewarding financially that lawyers look for rich widows to bilk instead of taxpayers.

Obama is so pathetic and such an egomaniac that his unpopularity will drive him to be even more dangerous to the country. The sheer number of left wing radical kooks he has appointed is giving the electorate stomach ulcers. As they screw up every agency in the government. He delagates to the radical fringe commies. Look out folks, it will oly get worse as long as he and his cronies have a "shred" of power. Even Eurpoe hates him now along with Muslims.

re: Bosk. So when will all these disasters, political, environmental, financial, etc. land on Obama and his clan of progressives? This poser has constantly lied to us, broken promises made in his campaign and show a complete ignorance of what is required being the President of the United States. He has surrounded himself with people of VERY questionable ethics, politics, outright terrorists and racists. He's taken every opportunity to allow America to be belittled all over the world with his kowtowing to various world leaders.

He has failed you. He has failed me. He has failed all of us and he and all who support him in congress need to be held accountable for making a bad situation much, much worse. Oh for the days of Jimmy Carter.

Well, What was Obama except a community organizer who got elected to the Senate briefly and then spent his time voting present?

THIS American is of THIS legislator. He wasn't even a GOOD legislator. We need leadership, not fundraising.

I was tired of him on November 4, 2008! This junior senator from Illinois knew everything about RUNNING for prez, but NOTHING about BEING prez! God help America!

Obama was hardly a legislator. He was a community organizer. Gahd.

I totally agree with the article.
If you are familiar with the wisdom of Solomon as he wrote in Ecclesiastes 10:5-7, it said:

5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun,
the sort of error that arises from a ruler:

6 Fools are put in many high positions,
while the rich occupy the low ones.

7 I have seen slaves on horseback,
while princes go on foot like slaves.

Kinda scary, aint it?

dear americans, what has happen to us? when will we unite and stop letting evil men decieve us. what 's being created ,a form a monarchy? we came so close to a congressal monarch with so much done wide open, pay offs,secret meeting,with more govt. controlling commerce, energy,trade,currency,education,to the point of blackmail by cutting govt. funding.propaganda increasing.term limits so long that political machines control elections with big politicans who owe them and forget and ignore you. control the airways,immagration,wide open borders.water to shut off to farmers,state rightslesser every day,sue their own american people.can't drill for oil. health care,banks,car co. wall st. corps. next the internet.we must keep our freedoms and limit these politicans. they live better than you. eat the best steak,free this or that and still pay no taxes.liars, cheats,arrogant,speak treason,think they are untouchable.raiser of taxes, raisers of their own pay and benefits .and still ignore your pleas for to honor the constitution. arrogant are they, rise up and vote them them we the people.also they use the race card in which i have become weary of.

Wow! You actually have a picture of Senator "voting present" Obama inside the building?


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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