Two data points make for a comparison, three suggest a trend. What Noonan says about Obama and Carter applies to Bill Clinton as well. By all accounts, the first two years of his presidency were a dismal failure. In Noonan’s terms, his administration lacked “coherence,” “full shape” and “meaning.” Clinton didn’t find his footing as president until he had Newt Gingrich looking over his shoulder. Why do Democratic presidents need a foil?“There is still a sense about Mr. Obama that he needs George W. Bush in order to give his presidency full shape and meaning. In this he is like Jimmy Carter, who needed Richard Nixon, or rather the Watergate scandal, which made him president. Mr. Carter needed Richard Nixon standing in the corner looking like he'd spent the night sleeping in his suit as it hangs in the closet. The image is from Joe McGinnis's ‘The Selling of the President, 1968.’ Mr. Carter needed to be able to point at Nixon and say, ‘I'm not him. He dirty, me clean. You hate him, like me.’ Carter's presidency was given coherence and meaning by Nixon, Watergate, and without it that presidency seemed formless. Mr. Obama, in the same way, needs Mr. Bush standing in the corner like Boo Radley, saying ‘Let's invade something!’ But Mr. Bush is wisely back home in Texas finishing a book, and the president never sounds weaker than when he suggests his predicament is all his predecessor's fault.”
Part of the answer may stem from the liberalism’s animating idea of equality. I’ve said before (see here) that liberals do unreasonable things when they think of promoting equality as a matter of minimizing the well-being gap between advantaged and disadvantaged people rather than of maximizing the well-being of disadvantaged people in absolute terms. It’s not particularly hard coming up with policies that promote equality in the first sense—you just redistribute resources from well-off families to less-well-off families until you get to your preferred distribution. The trouble is that, over the long term, leveling policies often make their intended beneficiaries worse off in absolute terms than they need to be.
Promoting equality in the second sense presents an optimizing problem. In an economy in which markets do most of the allocative and distributive work, maximizing the well-being of people near the bottom of the economic pyramid requires liberals to find a policy sweet spot that combines the right mix of redistribution and market-driven productivity gains. Finding the sweet spot was easy during the New Deal, when a liberal administration could enact a program like Social Security without its redistributive effects exacting a noticeable cost in social productivity. It got substantially smaller during the Great Society, when social spending on the War on Poverty (combined with a military budget bloated by the Vietnam War and the arms race) contributed to the stagflation of the 1970s. The sweet spot is becoming microscopic now that Social Security and Medicare are fiscally unsustainable in their present form and new redistributive policies have to be financed with borrowed dollars.
That means the modern liberal governments need to make much more discriminating policy judgments than ever before. The trouble is that you can extol our political system for many admirable qualities, but you can’t argue that it puts liberal presidents or congressional leaders in a position to find an elusive public policy sweet spot. In a parliamentary system a majority government can consult its favorite wonks and push a redistributive policy through parliament that consciously aims at where the wonks figure the sweet spot is. Whether they're right or wrong will become evident when the policy’s consequences are revealed over time. In the American political system, any significant piece of legislation is bound to be the product of many minds, each with his own theory about the sweet spot’s location and dimensions and his own political interests. In the unlikely event that the legislation that emerges from negotiation among these parties hits a small sweet spot, it could only be by accident. Neither Obama's stimulus bill nor ObamaCare, for example, ending up looking much like anything that a sane policy wonk would have drawn up.
Seen in that light, a liberal president’s need for a foil makes institutional sense. Even when it enjoys the support of an ideologically congenial congressional majority, a liberal administration lacks the institutional capacity to impose intelligent limits on its own redistributive aspirations. Having to reach an accommodation with an ideologically hostile opponent, as Clinton did with the Gingrich-led House, not only obliged, but enabled, him visibly to define his priorities. That doesn’t mean that what emerges from a divided government will necessarily be sensible public policy. But it will give a liberal administration the “full shape and meaning” that Noonan's looking for.
When a Democratic president confronts an opposition as depleted as the Republicans were in the wake of Vietnam/ Watergate or Iraq/Credit Crisis, it compensates by creating rhetorical foils like Carter's Nixon and Obama's Bush. That can disguise a liberal president's difficulty in finding public policy sweet spots on his own for a time, but not permanently.