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.
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.
I 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.