What’s Wrong With Obama?

Bashing president Obama is a popular pastime these days. On the Erstwhile Conservative’s blog, commenter Anson Burlingame recently blamed him personally for the current political divide in the Congress and in the country as a whole. One short paragraph summed it up neatly:

Obama has only promoted a rather extreme (for a President) left wing agenda for America, constantly dividing the nation between have’s and have not’s. I don’t believe he is capable of healing such a divide but only perpetuating it.

credit:  Wall Street Journal  WSJ Presidential Approval Ratings

credit: Wall Street Journal
WSJ Presidential Approval Ratings

There you have it. It’s personal, a matter, somehow of a lack of “leadership” I suppose. I was thereby motivated to look further into it: What influences a president’s job approval rating, and how have such polls varied in modern times? There’s plenty of data, including from the Wall Street Journal which has a good interactive site for exploring the matter.

Presidential track records have some similarities. They generally start out high and then decline toward the end of their terms in office. But when they deviate from this pattern, I find I can usually identify the reason by the date. In the case of George W. Bush, for example, there is a remarkable (and fairly short-lived) spike upward right after 9/11. After that, however, it was a steady plunge downward to a level shared with Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis, and Harry Truman’s labor woes. George H. W. Bush’s popularity soared with the “shock and awe” success of the first Gulf War, but dropped off the cliff after he raised taxes after promising not to. Bill Clinton’s rating record is unusual. It starts fairly low and then rises to above 60%. I can only think of one reason: “It’s the economy, stupid” (Please don’t take it personally, dear reader.) Interestingly, Obama’s curve, so far, is not unlike Reagan’s after the Iran-Contra scandal, both in magnitude and slope.

The bottom line here, for me at least, is that the job approval ratings reflect the body politic’s opinion about the short-term state of things and are virtually useless regarding how history will eventually judge the quality of a president’s performance. It is events that govern, and to expect a president to move them in the short term, with the exception of war, is naive and irrational. Yet, that is the clear implication of such polls. I think wise presidents will try to ignore them and keep their eye on the future, and I think Obama is trying to do so. But that’s not the nature of politics, is it? It’s tough.

Interstate_SystemI think the most successful presidents have been those who have been both selfless and disingenuous. Eisenhower fits that description. He had high ratings consistently and even finished near 60%, a remarkable standout. Yet despite his aura of successful Generalship it was commonly held among his critics at the time that he was a plodding bureaucrat who was unsure of strategy – they were wrong about that. The WSJ interactive poll record doesn’t go back to FDR, but it wouldn’t help much if it did. WW II was a special case because, in war, real war in which the nation’s fate actually hangs in the balance, winning is everything and the only thing, as the football guy said. But, FDR also fits the “selfless but disingenuous” mold.

If climbing in the polls were his main objective the most expedient thing president Obama could do would be something spectacular. Maybe start an air war in Syria, or maybe bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities (“. . . bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”, to quote a recent presidential candidate). But no, his eyes are on his legacy, and, in my opinion, the long-term welfare of his country. (Note to critics: not Kenya.) But to blame no-drama Obama for the partisan divide in the House is absurd. I can’t think of a single thing he could do that would please the Tea Party. He could shut down every woman’s health clinic in the country and disavow Rowe v. Wade and they would probably label it an ObamaCare plot. With them, it’s personal.

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
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9 Responses to What’s Wrong With Obama?

  1. Jim in IA says:

    That is an interesting and informative graphic. Thanks for linking to it. I agree that it is a short term thermometer of how people feel at the time, not whether the president is doing a good job overall. So many personal non-presidential factors weigh in on how they feel.

    I agree that no matter what Obama might do, he is despised by his enemies. That reflects the statement my Mitch McConnell at the very beginning that the goal was to make Obama fail. That is the attitude that has prevailed. http://wapo.st/1t02SOq Such behavior is not good for the country.

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  2. Jeff says:

    You cannot understand what people think about presidents without first knowing what the press says about presidents. But this has already been discussed much.

    Then there are the odd little foibles of peoples personalities. Ronald Reagan was among the worst presidents we have had in terms of middle class wages and fiscal responsibility, but he was among the best if you prefer to measure by Stock market and Real Estate gains, possibly only topped by Clinton and Calvin Coolidge. The people of America would seem to value a smaller amount of money in the form of erratic investment winnings in Real Estate and the Stock Market more than a larger amount of money in the form of wages.

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  3. PiedType says:

    Oh, I think in one sense you can blame Obama for the current political divide. But it’s not because of what he’s done; it’s because of what he is — a black man. And a liberal to boot. Some people will never accept a black president. It may not be PC to speak of it, but I think racism is still alive and well in this country.

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  4. aFrankAngle says:

    Listening to one side, every ailment in the world is President Obama’s fault …. while the opposite side tends to point fingers to other causes and blames in order to shed responsibility. It’s like a rivalry football game …. reading an article about the game from each side one would believe there were two games, but in actuality, there was one game and reality is somewhere between the two narratives.

    Nonetheless, I like to ask this question … If Republicans asked President Obama to fart, and he did, would they complain? Absolutely!!! After all, what the fastest way to get a Republican to change their position? Have President Obama take the same position.

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  5. Thoughtful points you make. And the graphic is interesting – looks like Ford and Kennedy were the least volatile. If President Obama were the liberal that Anson thinks he is and I wish he were, then he would have stopped the xl pipeline by now. and he would not have taken single payer off the table when planning health care. IMO Americans do not need health insurance – they do need health care. Obama is not the liberal that I thought he was when I voted for him. Although, at point, of course I would have anyway, as there would have been no other reasonable option.

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  6. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: Among Anson’s more outlandish comments, this one must surely take the prize. To blame Obama for the country’s divisions makes one ask if he had his tongue in his cheek, but then you remember tha Anson and irony are not close friends. I don’t remember who said it, but I recall a story from Clinton’s early Presidency:

    The Pope is visiting the USA and President Clinton takes him for a ride on the Presidential Yacht, the Sequoia. The Pope’s hat blows off. Clinton steps off the boat, walks across the water, recovers the hat, and returns it to the Pope. The following day Fox News lead story reads. “President Can’t Swim.”

    Such an attack, seemingly so vitriolic at the time, seems tame in these days of Obama.

    I remember that barely weeks into his Presidency Obama, in what I considered an outstanding instance of good will, attended a meeting of House Republicans in an attempt to extend a hand to the other side. His boorish treatment at the hands of these politicians marked a behavior that would grow in intensity throughout his tenure. I can recall no similar stretching out of hands from any Republican.

    As for Obama’s being the most liberal President in history, I always like to ask “Who came in second in your study? Third?” For surely no intelligent person would make such a claim without solid evidence to support it, would he? I wonder how Obama would stack up in a competition of liberalness against such opposition as Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, or Dwight Eisenhower when you consider the programs, agencies, and policies begun under their Presidencies.?

    Many Republicans make the claim that Anson repeats here, that all divisions in the country are Obama’s fault and that the Republicans deeply crave unity, love, and understanding, to which I can only say, in the immortal words of Jake Barnes, ” Well, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?”

    Bud

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  7. Great analysis, Jim.

    I would add to what has been said by noting that the relentless, 24-hour trashing of the President by the Conservative Media Complex also contributes to lower poll ratings. For example: The public is giving President Obama very low marks (somewhere around 37% in the last poll I saw) on foreign policy. Yet when people are asked what their position is on this or that foreign policy issue, they agree with what the president is doing. Same thing on ObamaCare in places like Kentucky. Call it ObamaCare and people hate it. Call it KYNect (or whatever it is the state exchange is called) and they like it. The point is that, with all-day and all-night bashing of Obama on the radio (much more widespread these days than ever before), with a cable channel dedicated to lowering his public approval (in many more homes and businesses, like hospitals and doctor’s waiting rooms than ever before), with the proliferation of Obama-hating conservative websites (and more people getting their “news” from such places) conservatives have negatively bent the trajectory of Obama’s approval rating, even when a majority agree with his policy decisions and outcomes. Heck, the economy is growing, jobs are being created at a faster pace than in recent memory, the stock market is way, way up, and still overwhelming numbers of people think the country is on the wrong track. In some ways, with conservatives in the media leading the way (but with help from disgruntled liberals), we are talking ourselves to death as a country.

    Duane

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  8. I have nothing profound to add to this discussion so I will stick to the absurd.
    Charles de Gaulle said “How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 cheeses?”
    Couldn’t President Obama (or his predecessor or successor) say “How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 million unyielding opinions?”

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