The last 65 years of presidential history show one clear, consistent preference on the part of the American electorate: the public feels vastly more comfortable with divided government, and grows worried and disillusioned under one-party rule. This conclusion should shape political strategy for both Republicans and Democrats as the two parties prepare for an epic struggle in 2010.
The Democrats, for instance, will commit a serious blunder if they put too much stock in the permanent popularity of President Obama. Of the twelve chief executives since the end of World War II, only three Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton -- retired from the White House with high popularity ratings.
Among the other nine, three were voted out of office (Ford, Carter, the first President Bush), one was driven to resignation in disgrace (Nixon), two withdrew from expected re-election drives because of early primary losses and pervasive public hostility (Truman and LBJ), one died at the hands of an assassin while facing a potentially tough re-election battle (JFK), one skulked quietly back to his Texas ranch with disapproval from nearly three-quarters of his fellow citizens (George W. Bush), and one more (Barack Obama) already faces a deeply polarized electorate after just one year of his presidency.
What political magic allowed Ike, Reagan and Clinton to escape the dire fates of their colleagues and, despite their share of mistakes, scandals and personal failings, to conclude their two terms with potent public support that resembled their first months in office?
One crucial factor shared by the three fortunate White House survivors was that they all presided over eras of divided government with opposition parties controlling at least one house of Congress during most or all of their presidencies. For Republican Dwight Eisenhower, the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate for six of his eight years with huge majorities his last two years. Under Reagan, Democrats controlled the House for all eight years of his Presidency, and the Senate for the last two years. Bill Clinton began his term with solid Democratic majorities in both Houses, but after his crushing mid-term losses in 1994, he spent his last six years--- 75% of his presidency-- working with energized Republican majorities in both Senate and House.