Thursday, February 18, 2010

Yeah, it's all the economy

Kudos to Jim Stimson for his series of revealing graphs about public opinion and the economy (via Monkey Cage).  As Stimson shows, approval ratings for the president move pretty closely with those for members of Congress and governors, suggesting voters aren't drawing substantive distinctions between government figures:
  Moreover, those approval ratings move very closely with assessments of the economy:
These findings should remind us that basically every assessment of the popularity of a major public figure should include some reference to the economy.  Sadly, very few of these do.  

Try this as an experiment.  Ask a group of students, or political reporters, or pretty much anyone why Reagan was a popular president.  You'll probably get a range of answers talking about his charm, his charisma, his folksy story-telling, his deftness in dealing with the Soviets, etc.  But, of course, the actual answer is that the economy was growing pretty strongly during much of his tenure.  Furthermore, he wasn't always popular:

Reagan was actually pretty unpopular for much of his first term.  Why?  Wasn't he still charming and charismatic?  Wasn't he telling his folksy stories?  Well, sure, but the economy was tanking.  Once it started growing steadily, so did his approval ratings, until the big drop in the second term as a result of the Iran-Contra scandal.  Which makes you think -- what if that scandal had happened during a recession, when Reagan's approval ratings were already in the low 40s.  If he'd dropped into the 20s, would he have been impeached?

1 comment:

Jonathan Bernstein said...

Good points. Note of course that events still can matter -- Reagan was hurt by Iran-Contra, Bush was in trouble from Iraq and Katrina long before the economy tanked, and all sort of other smaller events probably have very small effects that might not matter much, but might matter a little (or even a lot, if he circumstances are right). But as you say, the basic context is mostly set by the economy.