Vail Daily column: Two-term presidents’ popularity plummets

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

When their candidate is elected president, voters act like giddy children in a toy store on Christmas Eve. A president’s support usually dwindles, however, at mid-term after re-election. On the campaign trail, he promises the moon. Once in office, some promises can’t be delivered. Voters react negatively, feeling as if they’re clutching worthless moon dust.

Historian Lynn Olson describes mid-term voting patterns after a president’s re-election. The nation’s chief executive entered office with huge support of hope and change because he pulled the nation through dire economic crisis. “They still liked him as a person, the voters made clear” writes Olson, “but they were increasingly wary of his programs, his advisers and, above all, his manner of governing. There was a particular concern about what was seen as his attempts to gain too much power, with half of those questioned in the [Gallop] poll saying they thought he should have less authority.”

Who fits this presidential profile of voters rejecting him at mid-term elections? Re-elected Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered jarring defeat at the polls late in his presidency. So did President Ronald Reagan as GOP mid-term losses piled up.

Is Olson describing President Barack Obama? In 2008, he was elected as a knight in shining armor. Since then, chinks appeared. Amid a record-setting stock market, weekly paychecks haven’t kept pace with Wall Street’s earnings. Voters blame the president for pocket-book woes.

Though historian Olson could have written about an electorate at mid-term unhappy with Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan and Obama, she’s describing Franklin Delano Roosevelt at mid-term elections in 1938. The U.S. couldn’t shake a recession. Earlier in 1938, a Gallop poll reported barely half of voters responding said they would cast ballots for the president if he were running for re-election that year. Sound familiar?

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Voters act like fickle lovers. At the altar, many expect their mate can do little wrong. Then reality sets in. By the sixth year, the relationship weakens because of unfulfilled expectations. A biblical seer describes a faulty church that fits the jaded mood of the electorate at mid-term: “You have abandoned the love that you had at first” (Revelation 2: 4).

Once wedded to a president’s agenda in the first term, citizens become disillusioned by broken promises. They don’t want to hear that government is a constant reclamation project, just like their mates. Presidencies, like marriages, get messier in the second term.

Voters are split by divergent views about government. Some respect it; others love to hate its expansion.

President Obama regards government as an instrument to preserve citizens’ rights. It helps distribute civil rights throughout the electorate. The constitutional “We the People” are the government through elected representatives. Government protects individuals’ rights by regulating big business, filling workers’ needs, supporting labor unions, keeping Social Security solvent, building roads and bridges, protecting national parks and defending the nation against terrorists.

“We the People” view of government is symbiotic. Voters influence government through elected officials; in turn, these representatives help their constituency.

How’s President Obama doing, measured by this constructive view of government? “He really did pull us out of a probable depression with an effective stimulus package; the economy continues to wheeze, but it wheezes forward. He really did make history by producing a universal health care plan that will not be repealed but will be reformed over time. The non-stop Republican critique that these programs were ‘disasters’ has been rendered ridiculous,” concludes pundit Joe Klein.

Our Republic is poisoned when a negative anti-government perspective is endorsed. Voters believe government robs citizens of their rights, rather than restores them.

In 1973, presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan’s incendiary rhetoric stoked resentment against government. Speaking to a crowd at the Disneyland Hotel, Reagan treated government as a threat to liberty, rather than a preserver of our freedom. “Have we forgotten what the Constitution is for?” asked Reagan to a cheering crowd. “It is not designed to protect government from the people; it is to protect the people from government. It is not a document in which government tells the people what they can do. It is a contract by which people tell the government what we, the people, will permit the government to do.”

Not true. Reagan pits voters against government. He contradicts the Constitution’s Preamble which describes citizens working through government for the common good. Reagan rejects government as an expression of “We the People.” He and the GOP show antipathy toward government. Rather than being an expression of “The People,” it stands against them and robs voters of their rights. Reagan turns on its head the constitutional relationship between voters and government, saying it works to undermine “The People’s” rights.

Incumbent presidents often lose political ground in mid-term elections if “We the People” forget that government they vote for functions as a force for the common good.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (

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