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August 20, 2010

Why Johnny Can't Lead

This week it seems like everyone's making excuses for Obama. Today's unintentionally funny quote is obligingly served up by Ezra Klein:

Over the past two years, Barack Obama has done X. Now, his poll numbers have slipped to 44 percent. His party is slated to lose a lot of seats in the 2010 midterms. Obama's decision to do X is to blame.

"X" can be a lot of things. Maybe it's the decision to attempt health-care reform. Or his socialist tendencies. Or his cool, professorial demeanor.

Or maybe it's just that Obama overpromised and underdelivered. Undeterred by anything so pedestrian as starting with the obvious, Klein intrepidly presses on:

Sadly, we can't hit rewind on the cosmic VCR and persuade Obama to do the other thing in the name of science. But we have had a number of presidents who did very different things, and that gives us some basis on which to make judgments. Let's start with approval ratings. Gallup's system will let me compare only four presidents at once, so I chose the last three presidents who entered office amid a recession and didn't have a country-unifying terrorist attack in their first year.

Reading the bolded part of the last sentence set off my spidey sense. Here's the graph Klein created:


To be fair, I understand why Klein wanted to eliminate both Bush I and II from the comparison. Back in 2007 identified two basic patterns in presidential approval ratings: the two term peacetime pattern and the wartime onset pattern. As you can see from the following graph, going to war usually results in a brief period of soaring approval ratings followed by a precipitous decline:

As I observed then:

Comparing time series data on presidential approval ratings, a few interesting observations pop out.

First of all, a prolonged, fairly steady decline in approval ratings is more the rule than the exception. Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Bush I, and Bush II all had longer periods of declining than increasing popular approval.

Second, there appear to be two striking patterns or models of presidential approval: the two-term expanding peacetime model (Reagan/Clinton in rectangles) and the wartime onset model (Truman, Bush I, Bush II). The first, and Ford and Eisenhower may arguably fall into this category, is characterized by roughly equal or greater than equal increasing over declining approval ratings.

The wartime onset model (and I leave Johnson out because he inherited a war, and thus never experienced that giddy 'surge' in popularity experienced by Presidents who arrogantly rush the nation to war without the prior approval of France and Germany) is characterized by a wild upswing in approval at the onset of military operations, followed by a sharp and unrelenting decline in popular approval.

The third interesting observation is that the tenures of the wartime presidents (Truman, Johnson, Bush I, Bush II) were all characterized by "extremes" of opinion: they swung from highs unattained by peacetime presidents (over the high 70s) to lows never experienced by those who never led the nation during time of war.** It would be interesting to see what Kennedy's track record would have looked like, had he not been assassinated.

So I understand Klein's point - he doesn't want you to be distracted by the wild upswing in popularity we typically see when the nation goes to war. He's very careful to make this point, but oddly he doesn't notice (or simply doesn't mention) another interesting thing about the comparison he chose: in the last half century, only two presidents have begun their first term with approval ratings higher than the average first term rating of 65.9.

Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. As you can see, the patterns are very similar:


But in noodling about with this tool I discovered something else that amused me. Here's Obama against the overall average ratings (black), average ratings for Democrat presidents (blue) and average ratings for Republican presidents (red):


A few observations jump out at me:

1. Approval for Democrat presidents starts off about 3 points below the overall average. Republicans start off about 1 point above the combined average.

2. For the first 600 or so days in office there is not much difference between the overall, Republican, and Democrat averages.

3. After the first 600 days, the Republican average jumps above the overall trend. The Democrat average dips below the overall trend. And the distance between the two continues to grow.

4. Despite a significant head start (Obama, atypically for a Democrat, began with approval ratings greater than either the Republican or Democrat averages) his ratings so far position well below all three trends: the Republican, overall, and Democrat averages.

Klein's explanation for Obama's declining (and below average) ratings?

There are enormously powerful structural forces in American politics that seem to drag down first-term presidents.

I suppose if you're willing to cherry pick your Presidents and ignore the fact that Obama began with the highest initial approval rating since Lyndon Johnson (do you think the assassination of JFK may have had anything to do with that?), that may seem like a compelling argument.

Overpromising, inexperience, underdelivering and unwillingness to lead seem like better bets, though.

Update: Michael Gerson sums it up perfectly:

Few presidencies have been built so consciously or completely on an idealistic brand, with its own distinctive language and icons. But this "new kind of politics" has proved conventional in its conduct, predictable in its content and exceptional only for the depth of division it has inspired. The Obama administration is presented not just with the prospect of electoral repudiation but also with a question: How will it adjust to the death of the belief that gave it birth?

For some, this is merely a confirmation of their preexisting view of politics -- that idealism is a fraud, that rhetorical inspiration is a con. It is true that many politicians do not improve upon closer acquaintance -- that no man is a hero to his valet. But a nation of valets would lose its capacity for great purposes. So it should be a source of sadness that Obama, for many, has become a source of cynicism.

All politicians fall -- but not from such a height.

Posted by Cassandra at August 20, 2010 08:52 AM

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Over the past two years, Barack Obama has done X.

So, in KleinSpeak, X = "doodly-squat"...?

Posted by: BillT at August 20, 2010 11:55 AM

"So, in KleinSpeak, X = "doodly-squat"...?"

Ummmm, not really, Mr. DeBille, since 'squat' is an action word.

Posted by: DL Sly at August 20, 2010 01:43 PM

It's true that "X" is normally used to express the idea of an unknown.

Posted by: Grim at August 20, 2010 01:44 PM

Why Johnny Can't Lead

Cause Johnny is a Leftist freak.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 20, 2010 03:56 PM

Grim, known unknowns or unknown unknowns?

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 20, 2010 03:57 PM

Known unknowns. We know that we want to know X.

What is surprising to me, in the second chart (with the boxes and ovals) is how Clinton's scores climbed.

If you're really bored at work sometime, and have the figures, I really wonder what that chart would look like if a "normalization curve" was added to each term, the curve being added a inversion of the smoothed curve of all of the terms. (A "normal" term would then turn into a straight line; Presidents with two terms would get a jump in the middle at term change.)

Posted by: htom at August 20, 2010 08:27 PM

Htom's right. If I didn't know it was unknown, I wouldn't have assigned it a variable.

Posted by: Grim at August 20, 2010 08:36 PM

Nice try, Ezra. I love watching people explain that Obama would have been a failure no matter what policies he pursued -- it keeps them from having to look at the actual policies.

Democrats seem to be settling into a strategy for the upcoming elections: one issue after another is taken off the table for discussion. "Don't mention healthcare." "Don't mention the economy." Some are even talking about running on the idea that their worst bills can be fixed with a few amendments. "Vote to return us to office! Nothing we've done so far is completely irreparable."

Posted by: Texan99 at August 20, 2010 09:40 PM

"Vote to return us to office! Nothing we've done so far is completely irreparable."

They going for that Stockholme Syndrome. Got to keep the serfs in line with whippings and beatings. They'll be grateful!

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 21, 2010 04:53 AM

What is surprising to me, in the second chart (with the boxes and ovals) is how Clinton's scores climbed.

Internet bubble and welfare reform.

Not that those lasted, but that it created the impression that good things and clinton were related. Waco was forgotten. So was Elian Gonzalez. People have fickle memories. Until they themselves begin suffering what they would otherwise have ignored.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 21, 2010 04:54 AM