We are inclined to think about our leaders in historic terms.
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the Roosevelts are viewed as figures who tamed their legislatures and achieved great things.
But as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger heads into the sunset, we are confronted with a new paradigm — a larger-than-life figure who is unable to overcome the powerful forces arrayed against him. From Sacramento to Washington, D.C,. this new and darker scenario appears to be unfolding.
In California, the actor-turned-politician is in danger of ending his term on a tragic, not heroic, note. He has been unable to reverse the tide of red ink set into place by his predecessors and is going out on a somber note, not a triumphant one.
California’s budget remains badly out of whack, public employees remain overpaid and overpensioned and the state’s private sector remains weak.
The recall of Gov. Gray Davis may have changed the person at the top but it hasn’t changed the culture in Sacramento.
Move 3,000 miles across the country and you can see the same problems looming for President Barack Obama. The president was elected on what amounted to a recall of the Bush era’s laissez-faire stewardship of the economy, which ended with a calamity in the financial markets and the Great Recession. But as he presented his first State of the Union speech, many of the same problems confronting California loom on the national scene.
Confidence in the national legislature is very low. Health care reform, a showcase of Obama 1.0, is dead in the water — and perhaps too expensive an initiative for our time.
The aspirational part of the economy, which led to the creation of 25 million jobs in the 1990s, has been cast aside.
The rising tide of budget deficits, which Schwarzenegger was unable to tackle in any meaningful way, has turned him from a titanic figure into a leader struggling to get to the finish line with his reputation intact.
Similarly, Obama has rockstar qualities and tranformational capabilities. But his legacy will depend on his ability to bring future spending obligations under control and restore the job-generating capacity of American business.
Looking back, Schwarzenegger is so far a disappointing figure. Looking foward, Obama’s story is still being written. But the warning signs are there.