There is no such thing as a bad time to study the American presidency. But some times (now, for instance) are better than others. Consider the following:
With just one year left of his time in office, Obama has been freed of many constraints that have limited his willingness to take significant risks. Because he doesn’t have to worry about reelection, he can talk about as he likes, engage as he likes, prioritize as he likes.
The 2016 presidential election has officially started, with the first primaries and caucuses only weeks away (the Iowa caucuses are on February 1st; the New Hampshire primary on February 9th). The Democratic primary process seems clear enough, pitting an overwhelming “establishment” favorite (Clinton) against an upstart yet surprisingly resilient liberal challenger (Sanders). The question here is not so much whether Sanders will actually be able to win (vanishingly unlikely, although that’s what people were saying about Obama in December 2007), but whether he will be able to pull Clinton far enough to the left to affect here general election chances.
The Republican process is an entirely different matter. Yowza. At one point there were 16 formally declared candidates, and even though a few have dropped out (Walker, Jindal, Graham. Perry, Pataki) eleven are still running. It is impossible–to put it mildly–to work out the dynamics of such a race (formal models become
unstable with 3 candidates, and the complexity increases geometrically as you add
more possibilities. Eleven candidates? Impossible). The “establishment” candidates are all tanking, with early favorite Jeb Bush barely registering, and now in 5th
place, pulling 4.7% in the Real Clear Politics average. Most of the other candidates are more or less on the bottom (Fiorina, Santorum, Huckabee, Paul, Kasich). Neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson has dropped from his 2nd place status to 4th (and is in real trouble, as the dissention in his campaign signifies). Two other candidates, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio are running 2nd and 3rd as of January 14th. But apart from 1st place, everything is volatile and unpredictable.
In fact, I can sum up the unpredictability of the entire process in two words: Donald Trump. A decidedly unconventional candidate, he has emerged as the
frontrunner in the face of nearly unanimous opinion by party professionals, pundits, even political scientists that such a thing was impossible and that his nomination would be a catastrophe for the GOP. Trump, it seems, can say things that no conventional candidate could get away with, and the more outrageous his claims and language, the better he does. GOP regulars are horrified, but there is nothing that they can do, as reforms over the last four decades have removed almost all of their former powers over the nomination process.
We will be able to observe the bulk of the primary process in real time. I can’t tell what will happen, but I can promise that it will be fascinating.
In the meantime, the rest of the country’s (and world’s) problems have not gone away. ISIS, Syria, Iran, Russia, terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, in
Egypt and Israel and Turkey, the refugee crisis, North Korea, the European Union, China, climate change, drones, Guantanamo Bay, income inequality, gun violence, immigration, the economy, the deficit, entitlement reform, health care, are all hanging around–the full range of issues that will confront the new president.