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

June 17, 2010 |  3:12 am

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).

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