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The Myth of the Pandering, Rudderless President

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When asked if he was confident a budget deal could be reached, Speaker of the House John Boehner answered, "Listen, the House has done its job, both on the sequester and the looming debt fights that'll cost our economy some 700,000 jobs. On both of these, where's the president, where's the leadership?"

On its face, Speaker Boehner's comment sounds innocuous. The problem is that it contradicts an earlier remark he apparently made to President Obama during last year's budget negotiations: "Mr. President, as I read the Constitution, the Congress writes the laws. You get to decide if you want to sign them."

Put another way, the president should lead, but not get too involved.

Boehner is not alone in contending that the Obama White House both lacks leadership and focus, and that it is focused too much on polls. Republican keynote speaker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, echoed this cacophonous sentiment at the GOP convention:

"There's only one thing missing now. Leadership. It takes leadership that you don't get from reading a poll. You see, Mr. President -- real leaders don't follow polls. Real leaders change polls."

Every president from Franklin Roosevelt to the present, save Harry Truman, has been a voracious consumer of polls. FDR explored reactions to our bombing of Europe. Kennedy's camp polled about his Catholicism and citizens' reactions to it. Nixon polled about busing and foreign policy, to name but two issues. Reagan's polling operation was significant in its breadth and depth, as was Bill Clinton's.

Presidents neither pander to public opinion nor ignore it. Rather, they employ polls to discern how best to execute their agenda. President Reagan, for example, knew that citizens wanted smaller government and a more sanguine, patriotic perspective. President Reagan shared those values, and had been promoting them for decades. Polls aided Reagan in marketing and implementing that vision.

Governor Christie conflated President Obama's poll reading as evidence that he lacks leadership skills.

"That's what we need to do now.
Change polls through the power of our principles.
Change polls through the strength of our convictions.
Tonight, our duty is to tell the American people the truth.
Our problems are big and the solutions will not be painless. We all must share in the sacrifice. Any leader that tells us differently is simply not telling the truth."

Christie's claim that President Obama follows public opinion instead of leading it contradicts the GOP's broader message, namely that 'Obamacare' is unpopular and worthy of repeal. Did President Obama defy public opinion by advancing health care reform against the will of the people, or did he pander to public opinion by advancing health care reform. Which one is it?

The answer is neither. We still are of mixed minds about health care reforms that were passed and signed into law. Conservatives oppose them. Liberals generally applaud the bill, and most Americans are in between. Our answers often depend on what exactly we are asked (e.g. questions about pre-existing conditions v. new government bureaucracies).

Similarly, did President Obama intervene too much in the budget negotiations, or was he aloofly absent? Again, partisans who were not in attendance already have made up their minds. Undecided voters most likely do not care, and are not likely to be persuaded by pundits or campaign commercials.

While it may be appealing to argue that President Obama, or any president, panders to polls, that narrative is a myth. Leadership is complex. All presidents seek to locate the voice of the people. It is in their administrations' best interest to use well-crafted polls strategically and thoughtfully, rather than ignore them entirely.

Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the school of liberal arts and the associate vice president for academic services at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is the author of 'The Evolution of Presidential Polling' (Cambridge University Press).

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