Back in January, I predicted the birth of a thousand "Why Obama is failing" narratives:
It's time to lay down a marker on punditry about the Obama White House. During the next eleven months, it will become increasingly obvious that Democrats face an unfavorable political environment and that President Obama's approval ratings are trending downward. Inside the Beltway, these outcomes will be interpreted as evidence that the Obama administration has made poor strategic choices or that the President isn't "connecting" with the American public. Hundreds of hours will be spent constructing elaborate narratives about how the character, personality, and tactics of the principals in the White House inevitably led them to their current predicament.
What few will point out, however, is that the Obama administration (like every White House) is largely a prisoner of circumstance -- the combination of lingering economic weakness and an upcoming midterm election would hurt any president. David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel certainly didn't become any less skillful in the last few months; Obama is just playing a weaker hand than he was during the campaign and subsequent honeymoon period. As such, it's hard to know how much of the decline in the standing of Obama and the Democrats is the result of the choices the White House has made.
The latest offender is John Judis in a New Republic cover story not yet available online (see the cover here). Judis is a smart and sophisticated pundit, so I'm surprised to see him moving away from his previously clear-eyed stance on the primary source of Obama's troubles. Back in September 2009, he correctly noted that tactics were unlikely to change what he called "the lockstep relationship between Obama's popularity and the state of the economy":
Are these signs of voter discontent the result of tactical errors by Obama? Would the numbers look different if he had given his impassioned defense of national health care in February, or if he and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had been tougher on the banks earlier this year? Perhaps these tactics would have led to a temporary bounce in Obama's popularity, but they would not have changed its overall trajectory. That's because Obama's fortunes are being driven mainly by one thing: not health care, but the economy.
To understand the lockstep relationship between Obama's popularity and the state of the economy, it helps to look at two previous presidents who, like Obama, confronted a failing economy: Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan...
Similar factors [like 9/11] could certainly make the state of the economy less important in shaping Obama's popularity--dramatic success or failure in Afghanistan, for instance, or a new terrorist attack--but, for now, these factors are not in play. And that means Obama's fortunes, like those of so many of his predecessors, are tethered to the economy.
In March 2010, Judis published a story modifying his previous stance in which he claimed that Ronald Reagan was able to offset the negative effects of the economy on his political standing:
[A] president's political acumen--his ability to put the best light on his and his party's accomplishments--can mitigate the effects of rising unemployment. That's what Ronald Reagan and the Republicans achieved in the 1982 midterm elections...
Using economic models, some political scientists predicted that Democrats would pick up as many as 50 House seats. The Democrats also hoped to win back the Senate, which they had lost in 1980. But when the votes were tallied, the Republicans lost 26 House seats and kept their 54 seats in the Senate. How did Reagan and the Republicans manage to contain their losses in this midterm election? That's a question not simply of historical interest, but of direct relevance to Obama and the Democrats who are likely to face a similar, although perhaps not as severe, economic situation in November 2010.
Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with "the worst economic mess in half a century"... By cutting spending and taxes, Reagan claimed that he was showing the way toward a recovery...
Reagan stated this theme not once, but hundreds of times and in virtually the same words, and it was featured in national Republican ads....
As I noted at the time, however, modern models of Congressional elections do not show the 1982 election as an outlier; there's no statistical indication that Reagan overperformed relative to what we would expect. In addition, the polls are not consistent with the claim -- Emory's Alan Abramowitz pointed out that Reagan's approval numbers declined during 1982 and the Democrats held a large and steady lead in the generic ballot.
In his new piece, Judis briefly acknowledges the role of the economy, but argues that "the most important reason" for Obama's struggles "has been an inability to develop a politics that resonates with the public" -- namely, a populist message:
[T]here is a disturbing political resemblance between the two presidencies [Carter and Obama]. Both men ran inspired campaigns in which they positioned themselves above the scandals and partisan quarrels of their predecessors and initially stirred hopes of a "transformational" presidency. But, as presidents, both men somehow failed to connect with large parts of the electorate.
To be sure, there are a number of very specific reasons why Carter and Obama landed in political trouble. Both men contended with rising unemployment--Carter with rampant inflation as well--and voters' approval of a president and his party tend to track closely with changes in the economy. Carter faced friction in his own party and the rise of a powerful business lobby, and Obama has dealt with a Republican Party that has frustrated his dreams of a post-partisan presidency. Yet the most important reason for their difficulties--evident in their inept attempts to brand their programs--has been an inability to develop a politics that resonates with the public.
There's nothing especially mysterious about why Obama has "somehow failed to connect with large parts of the electorate" (the exact phrasing I predicted in January). Presidents tend to be more successful at "connecting" and "resonating" with the public when the economy is doing well. When things are going badly, political messages tend to fall flat. What president has ever "connected" or "resonated" in a terrible economy like this?
Amazingly, Judis even contradicts his previous article on the president's approach to the financial crisis. In September 2009, he wrote that being tougher on the banks "might have led to a temporary bounce in Obama's popularity, but ... would not have changed its overall trajectory." This time, however, he claims "What doomed Obama politically was the way he dealt with the financial crisis":
Obama took office with widespread popular support, even among Republicans, and some of his first efforts, including the $800 billion stimulus, initially enjoyed strong public favor. But that wide appeal began to dissipate by the late spring of 2009. Disillusion with Obama fueled the November defeat of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. By January 2010, it was a crucial factor in Republican Scott Brown's astonishing victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts.
In the postmortem debate over these defeats, some Democrats have blamed Obama's dogged pursuit of health care reform while the economy was hemorrhaging jobs. That may have been a factor, but the real damage was done earlier. What doomed Obama politically was the way he dealt with the financial crisis in the first six months of his presidency. In an atmosphere primed for a populist backlash, he allowed the right wing to define the terms.
After another brief acknowledgment of the role of the economy ("if the economy were growing faster, and if unemployment were dropping below 9 percent, Obama and the Democrats would be more popular"), Judis subsequently returns to the Reagan comparison:
Contrast Obama's attempt to develop a politics to justify his economic program with what Reagan did in 1982. Faced with steadily rising unemployment, which went from 8.6 percent in January to 10.4 percent in November, Reagan and his political staff, which included James Baker, Mike Deaver, and Ed Rollins, forged a strategy early that year calling for voters to "stay the course" and blaming the current economic troubles on Democratic profligacy. "We are clearing away the economic wreckage that was dumped in our laps," Reagan declared. Democrats accused them of playing "the blame game," but the strategy, followed to the letter by the White House for ten months, worked. The Republicans were predicted to lose as many as 50 House seats, but they lost only 26 and broke even in the Senate.
Some commentators have noted Reagan's popularity was even lower than Obama's. But, on key economic questions, he did much better than Obama and the Democrats are currently performing--and voters expressed far greater patience with Reagan's program. According to polls, even as the unemployment rate climbed, a narrow plurality still expressed confidence that Reagan's program would help the economy. On the eve of the election, with the unemployment rate at a postwar high, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 60 percent of likely voters thought Reagan's economic program would eventually help the country. That's a sign of a successful political operation. If Obama could command those numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November. But Obama has not been able to develop a narrative that could convince people to trust him and the Democrats.
Judis seems to be overstating how well Reagan's poll numbers compare to Obama's on the economy. "http://pollster.com/polls/us/jobapproval-presobama-economy.php">The current Pollster.com estimate of approval of Obama on the economy is 38.7%. The Roper iPoll database shows that poll ratings for Reagan's handling of the economy were similar and perhaps a bit lower in the comparable period: 35% (Gallup 6/11/82-6/14/82), 31% (Gallup 7/30/82-8/2/02), and 40% (ABC/WP 8/17/82). In fact, at almost exactly the same point in Reagan's presidency as we are in Obama's (August 17, 1982), a Washington Post poll found that only 32% of Americans thought Reagan's "overall economic program" was working. It's true, as Judis notes, that 60% of those polled by CBS and the New York Times in late October 1982 said Reagan's economic program "eventually will help" the economy (iPoll records the sample as registered rather than likely voters). However, a followup question showed that most were talking about two or more years later. Moreover, the same poll Judis cites found that 55% thought that Reagan's program had "hurt the country's economy so far."
It's possible that Judis is right that Obama's numbers would improve if he used more populist rhetoric, but tactics alone are extremely unlikely to change the dynamic Obama faces. He's mired in a terrible economy and is likely to suffer large midterm election losses. Different tactics might make a small difference on the margin, but as Judis previously put it, "Obama's fortunes, like those of so many of his predecessors, are tethered to the economy."
Update 8/25 9:17 AM: Mark Schmitt also critiqued Judis's use of poll numbers:
While making little effort to back up the Obama-as-Carter claim, Judis makes two serious attempts to rebut the Obama-as-Reagan argument, but in both cases, he cherry-picks polling data in misleading ways:
Some commentators have noted Reagan's popularity was even lower than Obama's. But, on key economic questions, he did much better than Obama and the Democrats are currently performing -- and voters expressed far greater patience with Reagan's program. ... On the eve of the election, with the unemployment rate at a postwar high, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 60 percent of likely voters thought Reagan's economic program would eventually help the country. That's a sign of a successful political operation. If Obama could command those numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November.
Judis is correct that in an October 1982 survey, 60 percent answered "help" to the question, "Do you think the economic program eventually will help or hurt the country's economy?" But this result was a total outlier, even in the CBS/New York Times polls. One day later, in the same network's exit polls, when the question was phrased as, "In the long run, do you think Ronald Reagan's economic program will help the country's economy, or hurt the country's economy?" only 49 percent thought it would help. Reagan's approval rating on his handling of the economy was 35 percent in September 1982, with 57 percent disapproving. Obama's approval rating on the economy in June, in both the CBS and Pew polls, was 10 points higher, at 45 percent.
In other words, Obama commands exactly the same numbers or better on the economy. When voters in 1982 were asked whether "the economic program" would eventually help, it's possible that they were thinking of Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker's policy of defeating inflation with high interest rates, rather than Reagan's quite inconsistent fiscal program. (Shortly before the election, he signed legislation reversing some of the tax cuts of the first year, a bill which remains the biggest tax increase in U.S. history.)
Here's Judis' other stab at salvaging Reagan's sorry second and third year at Obama's expense:
In Pew's midyear report card on Obama's image, the greatest drop from February 2009 to this June was in the perception of Obama as a "strong leader." Voters will sometimes tolerate policies they question from presidents like John Kennedy or Reagan, whom they regard as "strong," but not from politicians like Jimmy Carter, whom they regard as weak.
True, Obama's biggest decline in the Pew poll was on "strong leader." But he began his term with the highest ratings on that attribute of any president since Reagan -- almost identical to Reagan's, in fact. And both subsequently lost ground.
From the Pew Polls, here's Obama's descent, on the "strong leader" question:
Jan 2009: 77%
Jan 2010: 62%
June 2010: 53%
And here's Reagan. The first data point is from a CBS/NYT poll; the rest are(Source: Roper Center iPoll database)
Jan 1981: 78%
Dec 1981: 71%
June 1982: 44%
Dec. 1982: 41%
March 1983: 38%
From identical stratospheric perceptions as leaders, Obama has lost 24 points, while Reagan lost 40 points, a drop of more than half. Obama is still regarded by a majority as a strong leader; Reagan at the same point definitely wasn't.
Judis says, of the economy, that "if Obama could command [Reagan's] numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November." But not only are Obama's numbers better than Reagan's, Reagan didn't "seriously limit" his own losses. The economy in 1982 flipped 27 House seats to the Democrats, enough to enable the party to marginalize the conservative Democrats who had supported Reagan's policies in 1981. (Democrats gained only one seat in the Senate, probably because only 11 Republicans were up for re-election that year.) The basic, boring insight of the political scientists is right here: Bad economies hurt presidents. The advice that if only Obama mimicked FDR, he too would win seats in the midterm seems like a very simplistic form of historical analogy, about a very different and unique moment.
Reagan recovered, of course, in time for the "Morning in America" election of 1984. And so we naturally forget those days when he seemed doomed to be the fifth consecutive president to leave office a failure, rather than the first since Eisenhower to complete two terms and leave more or less respected. (I was kind of shocked to learn of the magnitude of Reagan's slump myself, although I was alive and politically aware at the time.) He recovered not because of his message or his political operation, as Judis suggests, but because the economy recovered.
Update 8/25 9:23 AM: Judis has posted a response to his critics, but he makes no serious effort to address the criticisms that Schmitt and I raised. Here's the most relevant portion:
As I said in my piece, and charted in another piece last fall, presidential approval can be expected to fall in tandem with a rise in unemployment and a decline in personal income. But as Jay Cost of Real Clear Politics has argued, it's still question of how much presidential approval, and a party's political prospects, will fall. In August 1982, Yale political scientist Edward Tufte, who pioneered the economic theory of elections, predicted that the Republicans would lose 45 House seats. By November, the economy had continued to decline, but the Republicans lost only 26 seats and broke even in the Senate.
One reason the Republicans cut their losses was because Ronald Reagan and his White House advisors developed a populist narrative that they repeated from January to November urging voters to "stay the course." While Reagan remained somewhat unpopular, his relentless campaign convinced a majority of voters that his policies would eventually work. Obama has not developed a narrative; and as a result, voters have far less confidence in his economic policies than they did in Reagan's. That could make for a big Democratic defeat in November.
But as I noted above, modern forecasting models do not show the 1982 election as an outlier -- there's no evidence that Reagan overperformed. And as Schmitt and I have shown, the claim that "voters have far less confidence in [Obama's] economic policies than they did in Reagan's" is based on a highly selective interpretation of a handful of polls. In reality, Obama and Reagan's poll numbers are roughly parallel.
Update 8/26 9:23 AM: Schmitt responds to Judis here.