Why you should care

Your government and your iPhone may have more in common than you think.

We’ve all been there. The agony of that appliance breaking down just after the warranty expires, the frustration of the software that requires constant updates to function or the electronic device that is no longer compatible with the accessories you bought last year. Some of these aggravations are by design, the result of “planned obsolescence” and manufacturers who intend for a product to grow useless or to wear out after a certain period of time. That way, you’ll buy another.

Now if your average politician seems at times like a product himself — a wind-up doll, manufactured out of talking points and poll-tested sound bites and bought and sold as far as campaign finance law allows — he is not, in fact, a consumer good. Yet at about this time in the American political cycle, once the electorate’s collective “six-year itch” has been scratched, it feels like you’ve been left with a government that has just about reached the end of its useful life cycle, despite the new carrying case you bought it on Tuesday.

As some pundits pronounce President Barack Obama a lame duck already and others lament the “curse” that afflicts all second-term presidents, what we are really confronting the next two years is the possibility of a lame-duck democracy. It’s as if certain constitutional constraints — separation of powers, winner-take-all elections, term limits — have conspired with circumstances (a divided polity, polarized parties) to render our government disappointingly slow, if not functionally useless, until a newer model is released in 2016.

History suggests that having a lame-duck president is not unlike having an older-model iPhone.

But planned obsolescence — in both the capitalist and constitutional senses — is a double-edged sword: yes, sometimes a wasteful cosmetic exercise, but also, at times, an engine of renewal and progress. As such, the road to political obsolescence can have some surprising — even useful — turns, including at two critical junctures in U.S. history when, like Barack Obama, Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan found themselves confronting a Senate that had changed hands during their sixth year in office. History suggests that having a lame-duck president is not unlike having an older-model iPhone. It’s non-optimal, and occasionally frustrating, sure, but far from the end of the world — and perhaps just the start of a new one.

president of the united states boarding a helicopter

President Barack Obama boards Marine One.

From the Ivory Tower to the Outhouse

On the surface, Barack Obama bears an uncanny resemblance to the last Democratic president to lose control of the Senate midway through his second term: Woodrow Wilson. Cerebral, detached, high-minded but technocratic, the Ivy League-educated former academic was a master orator, the last president to write his own speeches and the only ever to hold a Ph.D.

By 1918, his fifth year in the White House, Wilson had notched some landmark domestic legislation — the Federal Reserve, the income tax, antitrust legislation — on his belt, nominated the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court (Louis Brandeis), and even incurred the wrath of civil libertarians with his support for the Espionage Act, still used today to prosecute the likes of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. He was also in the process of wrapping up American involvement in a conflict overseas and battling a deadly contagion.

Even in the midst of political life, he is in death.

But that’s really where the rough parallels to the current president end. When Republicans swept the congressional elections that year, gaining a two-seat majority in the Senate and adding 25 seats in the House, it wasn’t even the most important thing in Wilson’s week: The armistice ending World War I took effect six days later. Still, the Republican rout would prove significant — both deleterious to Wilson’s presidency and a stark reminder that even a president whose popularity and power is not waning (and who did not yet face the two-term limit established by the 22nd Amendment), can quickly be rendered lame or obsolete. Even in the midst of political life, he is in death.

With America an active participant in a global conflict that would kill tens of millions and a deadly influenza virus raging that would infect close to a quarter of Americans, the congressional elections were nowhere near the top of Woodrow Wilson’s vast “to-do” list in 1918. At the time, he would famously declare that “politics is adjourned.” Only it wasn’t. Eleven days before the election and while in the midst of very tense negotiations with the Germans over ending the war, the brainy president did something irredeemably stupid. Claiming that “the return of a Republican majority to either house of the Congress would certainly be interpreted on the other side of the water as a repudiation of my leadership,” he issued a statement asking the American people to elect Democrats.

an american president poses for a portrait

President Woodrow Wilson

The naked plea energized Republicans, inflamed silent critics and — in combination with high prices, shortages and a struggling economy in many parts of the country — swung Congress for the GOP and stifled the president’s wartime political momentum. “It may not have been a great mandate or repudiation of Wilson’s handling of the war,” David Pietrusza, historian and author of 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, tells OZY, “but it sure played that way … and still does in the history books.”

If the armistice had occurred just a week earlier, or if Wilson had let sleeping dogs lie, he could perhaps have parlayed victory in Europe and at home into his ultimate dream: U.S. ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and entry into the League of Nations that he had helped shape. But with the GOP in control of Congress, and his nemesis Henry Cabot Lodge using his new status as Senate majority leader and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee to exert influence over the treaty process, that all faltered.

Perhaps Wilson’s vision was a bridge too far. After the war, he declared that the world was about to enter a new age of democracy, but, in reality, his proud, isolationist country was probably not ready to make that leap with him in 1919. Wilson may have been rendered obsolete at just the right time, and if the results of the 1920 presidential election (the most lopsided popular vote margin in history in favor of Republican Warren G. Harding) are any indication, America was ready for a different model.

Reagan’s Rebellion and Anthony Kennedy’s America

The next American president to face obsolescence after his party lost the Senate in his second term was Ronald Reagan in 1986. An aggressive and popular president who had wiped the electoral floor with Walter Mondale two years before, the 75-year-old ex-actor was in pretty good shape for a second-term leader in 1986, enjoying a 63 percent approval rating and a growing economy. Still, even Reagan could not escape the six-year itch, and the Democrats retook the Senate with an eight-seat gain and also added five seats to their majority in the House.

It could have been far worse for Reagan. Just the day before the election that November, a Lebanese newspaper first reported on the U.S. sale of weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. As the details of the Iran-Contra affair began to emerge that fall, Reagan’s approval rating would plummet to a low of 47 percent, and by the time the 100th U.S. Congress took its seats the following January, things looked pretty bleak for the lame-duck Gipper. Some even wondered whether Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviets would wait for the next president before returning to the bargaining table.

From a divided government, led by a president most had lost faith in, came one of the more fruitful congressional sessions.

a united states president on a podium

President Ronald Reagan.

But then a strange thing happened: Even in a divided government led by a president that a majority of the country had lost faith in, the stars aligned to produce one of the more fruitful congressional sessions and diplomatic efforts in U.S. history. Even as millions of Americans watched Congress indict the administration’s secretive dealings during the Iran-Contra hearings on television, the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress were embarking on a legislative session that would result in what The New York Times called “ground-breaking legislation in areas as diverse as trade policy and welfare, civil rights and arms control,” and what Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., labeled the “best [Congress] since LBJ.”

A unique set of factors and circumstances drove the hobbled Reagan and a Democratic Congress into each other’s arms: an administration humbled by scandal, an unnerving stock market crash in October 1987, thawing relations with the Soviets, and a Democratic Party eager to prove it was ready to lead come 1988. In foreign policy, as James Mann documents in his book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, time and again the GOP icon bucked the advice and wishes of his party and closest advisers in dealing with Moscow and in working with Senate Democrats to approve — against conservative opposition — a major arms-control treaty.

Sometimes there comes a point in politics when both sides need to show voters they can produce a more durable product.

Just as companies such as Apple know that their brand will suffer if they routinely produce products that have what economists call “inefficiently short useful lives,” sometimes there comes a point in politics — after a Mondale-level shellacking or a scandal undermining a president’s very competence — when operators on both sides need to show voters they can produce a more durable product. Reagan’s concern with his legacy and the Democrats’ urgent need to burnish their credentials proved sufficient to overcome the constitutional rails herding them toward obsolescence.

hearing of a judge in the united states senate

Judge Robert H. Bork

That cross-party relationship was not without friction, however, as the September 1987 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork would unforgettably demonstrate. Senate Democrats, led by liberal lion Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., excoriated the former Yale law professor and federal appeals court judge. “Robert Bork’s America,” Kennedy famously opined on the Senate floor, “is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters … and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution.”

Had Bork been nominated a year earlier, he might have sailed through the confirmation process in a GOP-led Senate as his fellow originalist Antonin Scalia did in 1986 (confirmed by a 98-0 vote). But as a result of the Senate Democrats’ opposition to Reagan’s nominee, Bork’s nomination failed and the more moderate Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in his place. And if, as Dahlia Lithwick argues, the Supreme Court’s current “swing justice” is also the justice “most representative of that elusive Every American … the mysterious and alluring swing-voter,” then Anthony Kennedy’s America may be far more representative of the actual one.

Forging a More Perfect Union in a Polarized Party State

“The laws of this country have not kept up with the change of political circumstances in this country,” Woodrow Wilson once observed, voicing a sentiment that many today in an era of partisan gridlock would second. Frustrated with a system of checks and balances that he felt made government both inefficient and irresponsible as the organs of government warred internally, Wilson’s scholarship advocated a more parliamentary form of government in the U.S. with no separation between the legislative and executive branches.

The White House

The White House

As hopelessly divided as Wilson and others felt American government was a century ago, it’s only gotten worse, according to Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein in their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Today, cooperation is rare. Until the financial crisis forced George W. Bush and the Democratic majority in Congress elected in 2006 to work together, there was very little in the way of bipartisan measures. And, according to Mann and Ornstein, the Republican congressional opposition to President Obama has only upped the ante on political dysfunction. Has American democracy moved, then, from a normal cycle of periodic obsolescence to a steady stream of junk goods?

Has American democracy moved, then, from a normal cycle of periodic obsolescence to a steady stream of junk goods?

Planned obsolescence in the product space offers some hope. Originally, the concept didn’t imply a conspiracy to get consumers to buy fewer durable goods. It was about “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary,” in the words of Brooks Stevens, the industrial designer who promoted the notion in the 1950s. And the best way to do that, as Apple has demonstrated, is not to stage the self-destruction of the old model, but to make consumers want to replace their still-functioning product with an even better one.

There lies the silver lining for a lame-duck presidency — the prospect that members of both parties aspire to be seen as still-functioning products capable of better things come the next election cycle. And, luckily for them, the hope for a “better one” among American voters — like consumers — seems to spring eternal: a Bush to supersede the moral fiber of a Clinton, an Obama to upgrade the competence of a Bush. The next one will always be newer, better, different. Until he, or she, is not.

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