09/12/2013 07:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Much Will The Media's Disapproving Yowling Over Syria Affect President Obama?


Political science time! Two weekends ago, President Barack Obama decided that rather than act unilaterally in pursuing a military solution to Syria's use of chemical weapons, he was going to seek congressional approval first, on the stated grounds that any action would have more legitimacy and durability if America --and I'm paraphrasing here -- "spoke with one voice." (There is also this quaint notion that the president is constitutionally obligated to seek such authorization.)

Almost immediately, the administration's proposal to pursue a "targeted, limited" set of airstrikes in Syria collided with certain realities. First and foremost, the American people are in large numbers against getting involved in the Syrian conflict. Second, and just as tricky, is the fact that the Congress to whom Obama kicked the decision is largely against an intervention as well.

These collisions added another complication. The political press -- which has oddly evolved in recent years to become a cheerleader for unilateral executive undertakings and dismissive of populist sentiment -- took Obama's decision to honor his constitutional obligation very poorly. The ensuing Sunday morning apoplexy treated the request for authorization as if it were a wild, unstable, uncertain choice.

Since then, there have been a number of hearings, a committee vote, a hardening in Congress against the airstrikes, an erosion of public support for the same, a televised presidential address and -- depending on your point of view -- a set of new opportunities or liabilities arising from Russia suddenly getting involved in diplomacy on the issue.

In that time, the media's chorus of disapproval has only gotten louder. The question Andrew Rudalevige poses over at the Monkey Cage is, "So: how much should Obama worry about this?" Ha, well, guess what?

At least one study suggests, not much. Jeffrey Cohen, in his 2008 book The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News, found that after the 1970s, “no correlation exists between the negativity of presidential news and public approval of the president.” Before then – Cohen’s quite comprehensive data go back to the 1940s – there was indeed a strong connection, where a negative tone in press coverage was linked to lower approval. (Richard Brody finds this too in his earlier book on Assessing the President.)

For best results, you should go read the whole thing for Rudalevige's distillation of this study. But I'll distill it further. In the pre-Watergate era, the coverage of the presidency and government was, on balance, so tilted in a positive direction that negative coverage and naysaying really tended to stand out. Cohen notes that this has changed: “The regularity of negative news makes it hard for the public to tell if the bad news reflects truly bad conditions that it should pay attention to or if it merely reflects the agenda of journalists.”

To that, add the fact that the political press now carries diminished gravitas, is less trusted, more fragmented, and shops a lot of infotainment as a commodity to be sold to people with pre-existing political prejudices. Rudalevige gives good pith: "There is less 'mass' in mass media."

Finally, Rudalevige points out that since Labor Day, all of the howling has resulted in a terrifying decline in presidential approval ratings, from 43.8 percent to 43.5 percent.

I don't know, it's almost as if the political media is exclusively performing for an audience of themselves, or something!

The Media Pounds the President: Does it Matter? [The Monkey Cage]

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The Obama Cabinet