Barack Obama and the “Illegitimate” Presidency

There’s a long history of critics seeking to question or undermine presidential authority.

President Obama shakes hands with former President George W. Bush, as former President Bill Clinton applauds at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2013.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
March 13, 2016, 8 p.m.

Paul Begala can’t for­get what happened on Thursday, Aug. 11, 1994. It was the day he thinks the seed was planted that grew in­to today’s re­fus­al by Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans to con­sider any Su­preme Court nom­in­ee sub­mit­ted by Pres­id­ent Obama. Moreover, he sees it as help­ing put the na­tion on the path to what has be­come this year’s tu­mul­tu­ous, in­sti­tu­tion-rat­tling, of­ten-dis­pir­it­ing, any­thing-but-up­lift­ing pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

That was the day when Con­gress was fight­ing over Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton’s crime bill and House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence Chair­man Dick Armey of Texas rose from his seat to face the Demo­crat­ic side of the aisle. With con­tempt in his voice, Armey all but shouted at the Demo­crats, “Your pres­id­ent is just not that im­port­ant to us.”

Begala, then a top White House aide, was stunned at the sug­ges­tion that Clin­ton really wasn’t pres­id­ent of the na­tion’s Re­pub­lic­ans. “There is a straight line from that mo­ment to the birth­er non­sense to deny­ing Pres­id­ent Obama a fair hear­ing on a Su­preme Court nom­in­ee,” Begala told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Re­pub­lic­ans have had a dec­ades-long ef­fort to del­e­git­im­ize any Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent.”

Re­pub­lic­ans broaden the charge. They don’t deny that many in the GOP raised ques­tions about Clin­ton’s le­git­im­acy be­cause he failed to win a ma­jor­ity in either of his elec­tions. And they did im­peach him. They also provided ample en­cour­age­ment to those on the fringe who chal­lenged Pres­id­ent Obama’s le­git­im­acy by ques­tion­ing wheth­er he was really born in Hawaii. But they fire back by ac­cus­ing Demo­crats of un­der­min­ing the le­git­im­acy of George W. Bush, the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent in between Clin­ton and Obama.

Both sides are cor­rect in their ac­cus­a­tions and both are com­pli­cit in cre­at­ing a tox­ic en­vir­on­ment un­pre­ced­en­ted in Amer­ic­an his­tory. There have been many in­stances in the past when pres­id­ents have had their le­git­im­acy chal­lenged. John Quincy Adams nev­er re­covered from ac­cus­a­tions that a “cor­rupt bar­gain” put him in of­fice in 1824; Ruther­ford B. Hayes was hobbled after he won the pres­id­ency only by a deal in 1876 to end Re­con­struc­tion. And Ben­jamin Har­ris­on’s stand­ing suffered by the way he won the elec­tion in 1888.

But the coun­try has nev­er seen any­thing like the last 23 years, dur­ing which three pres­id­ents have had their le­git­im­acy con­stantly un­der chal­lenge, with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing rise in po­lar­iz­a­tion, cre­at­ing the cli­mate for the cur­rent stan­doff on the Su­preme Court and a bru­tish pres­id­en­tial cam­paign char­ac­ter­ized by in­sults and at­tacks.

Less than 24 hours after Clin­ton was elec­ted in 1992 with only 43 per­cent of the vote, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an Lead­er Bob Dole de­clared, “Fifty-sev­en per­cent of the Amer­ic­ans who voted in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion voted against Bill Clin­ton, and I in­tend to rep­res­ent that ma­jor­ity on the floor of the U.S. Sen­ate.” Pres­id­en­tial schol­ar Ju­lia Az­ari of Mar­quette Uni­versity noted that, to some, “Clin­ton was per­ceived as hav­ing won only be­cause [Ross] Perot stole votes that would have oth­er­wise gone to George H.W. Bush.”

Eight years later, after it took a con­tro­ver­sial Su­preme Court de­cision to hand the pres­id­ency to George W. Bush, sev­er­al Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus dis­rup­ted the count­ing of Elect­or­al Col­lege bal­lots to protest. In his mem­oirs, Bush com­plained that “[p]ar­tis­an op­pon­ents and com­ment­at­ors ques­tioned my le­git­im­acy, my in­tel­li­gence and my sin­cer­ity. They mocked my ap­pear­ance, my ac­cent and my re­li­gious be­liefs. I was labeled a Nazi, a war crim­in­al and Satan him­self.”

Then, an­oth­er eight years later, the treat­ment of Obama was even less re­strained. Former De­fense Sec­ret­ary Le­on Pan­etta, in his mem­oirs, said the birth­er at­tacks had a real im­pact on gov­ern­ing. “No oth­er pres­id­ent’s le­git­im­acy as a per­son and of­fice­hold­er has been chal­lenged in the way Pres­id­ent Obama’s most ex­treme crit­ics have ques­tioned his. Those chal­lenges have en­cour­aged the pres­id­ent’s cau­tion and de­fens­ive­ness, which in turn has em­boldened fur­ther chal­lenges.”

Bush press sec­ret­ary Ari Fleis­cher said this week that the chal­lenges to Bush’s le­git­im­acy were “just something we learned to deal with,” start­ing at the very be­gin­ning of his term when Bush in­vited sev­er­al Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of Con­gress to a meet­ing only to have some re­fuse “be­cause they viewed him as an il­le­git­im­ate pres­id­ent.” Be­cause he saw the dam­age that at­ti­tude did, Fleis­cher has spoken out against the birth­ers. “I nev­er liked it when people tried to del­e­git­im­ize Bush, and I won’t do that to Pres­id­ent Obama,” he told NJ. “I’m happy to have policy dis­putes with him, but not the rest.”

Begala took a sim­il­ar les­son from what he saw in the Clin­ton White House. “George W. Bush was, in my eyes and the eyes of many Demo­crats, il­le­git­im­ately in­stalled as pres­id­ent in 2000. But Demo­crats worked with him. … Demo­crats gave him votes on his Su­preme Court nom­in­ees.”

Mar­quette’s Az­ari, cit­ing the chal­lenge to any Obama Su­preme Court nom­in­ee and the tone of the cam­paign, sees scant hope for im­prove­ment in the treat­ment of the next pres­id­ent. The chal­lenge to in­sti­tu­tions has “con­verged with po­lar­iz­a­tion to make pres­id­en­tial le­git­im­acy really dicey,” she said. “Maybe we are see­ing the cul­min­a­tion of a gen­er­al lack of le­git­im­acy … oddly com­bined with this de­mand for a strong pres­id­ent to fix it.”

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