Friday, September 23, 2011

Do good politicians need help?

This post by Gladstone at Cracked is a bit old, but contains some important notions about presidential popularity that deserve to be addressed. Gladstone is discussing the website "WTF Has Obama Done So Far," a tongue-in-cheek project designed to demonstrate that Obama's presidency has, in fact, been marked by a great deal of accomplishments of which liberals should be proud. One would hardly expect such a website to have an enormous impact on elections or public discourse, but Gladstone actually takes it as evidence of Obama's failure as a politician:
A true presidential politician articulates a vision for America, wins over the public support and then gets the Congress to follow him because everyone wants to be on the winning team. And by that standard, Barack Obama has not met his objectives. How do you know? Because after two years in office, he needs the liberal devout to engage in an Internet campaign to explain what he's even done. [...]
[T]wo years into Reagan's term no one had to be told what he did. It didn't even matter if it were true. Americans would tell you Reagan cut inflation, made us stronger abroad and restored our national pride. Furious, the liberal intellectuals would then take to the media to explain why Reagan's seeming accomplishments were a smoke screen. Why he had taken credit where none was due. And point out all the unforgivable things he hadn't done or did in secret. Meanwhile, the right would merely smirk at those brainiac, detail-orientated liberals, while mumbling things like, "There you go, again," because they knew they'd already won.
Gladstone is funny and compelling, but also profoundly wrong about a few key items here. First of all, the obvious one: Reagan was deeply unpopular two years into his first term! In January of 1983, Reagan had approval ratings in the mid-30s, well below Obama's lowest point thus far. That doesn't make him a bad politician or a poor communicator; it's just a reminder that presidents are, to a great extent, victims of circumstance. The economy was in the middle of a full-blown recession, and that takes a toll on even charismatic politicians like Reagan.

Second, how did Reagan manage to win reelection in 1984? It's simple: the economy recovered. If "no one had to be told what [Reagan] did," that's because everyone could experience economic recovery in their own lives. More people were finding work, employed people were making more money than they were the previous year, their buying power wasn't being wiped out by high inflation, etc.

Third, even if people didn't have to be told what Reagan did, they were told anyway. No, there were no sarcastic websites in 1984, but there were plenty of conservative operatives at work getting that message out. They could largely be found in places like the White House, the Republican National Committee, the Reagan/Bush reelection campaign, and more than a few newspaper editorial desks, and they spent a great deal of time, money, and energy telling Americans that their lives were better because Reagan was in charge. In other words, they were doing exactly what liberal activists are trying to do for Obama today.

If most Democrats can't recite a laundry list of Obama's accomplishments, well that's just because very few voters can do that about any president, not because Obama's a bad politician. And if economic growth actually ramps up in the next year, Gladstone will be amazed at how good a politician Obama suddenly appears to be.

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