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Blame the President

Your Humble Blogger hates to defend David S. Broder, who really is a perfect example of blinkered Washingtonism, what Left Blogovia calls The Village mentality. But the problem with his Op-Ed called Is President Obama’s Carter moment nearing? is that it is, on the whole, correct. Oh, there’s stupid stuff in it. But where, f’r’ex, Dave Noon is wrong, in my arrogant opinion, is that like with Jimmy Carter and the Hostage Crisis, the practical ability to do something useful has little to do with the popularity of the President.

Look, everybody who follows politics knows, must know, that the President takes the blame for all the bad things that happen while he is in office, and gets the credit for the good things. We know that. If the economy is good, the President is popular. If the Congress can’t pass legislation, the President is unpopular. It isn’t fair, the Divine knows, but it is how it is. If you don’t like it, don’t run for President. The problem is that while everybody knows the general rule, it is one of those general rules that it is difficult to remember to apply to specific situations. When we hear that Our Only President’s popularity is down because a bunch of oil mining and development and refining companies screwed the proverbial, we respond that it’s unfair. Well, so it is unfair, we knew that. The question is how to respond to the unfair situation.

And it’s not as simple as people blaming Our Only President for things that are outside his control. I’ve gone on about this before, I think—the way polls are reported and discussed makes it seem as if Jane Q. Public has a rating for Our Only President, which is updated whenever Ms. Public learns something new about him, his policies, his speeches or his actions. That just isn’t so. Ms. Public does not respond instantly to a news story by thinking hm, I suppose now if somebody surveys me I will respond that I disapprove of the way the President is handling the oil spill, but still approve of the health care plan and the stimulus, and yet I think the country is going in the wrong direction. Perhaps you should write that down, Ms. Public, so you are prepared for the call.

No, that’s not how people are. My guess is that people are more or less evenly split between (a) people like me who will tell the pollster whatever we think makes our Party look better than the other one and so never have to make up our minds at all, and (2) people who make up their minds at the moment the pollster asks. Well, and the other group, that doesn’t answer pollster’s questions. Still. Since the swings in the popularity of the President are driven almost entirely by that (2) group, their answers will be as dependent on their mood at the moment of the question as by data analysis. This isn’t a Bad Thing: if things are generally going well across the country, then more people, on the whole, will be in a good mood at a moment when a pollster is calling. Bad economic times will play in to this more than anything, of course—people who have lost their jobs or are afraid of losing them are more likely to be in a bad mood when the pollster calls. But a persistent bad news story? Also a downer.

This is all independent of what Our Only President has done correctly or incorrectly, of course. I mean, I think he should have been more aggressive about cleaning up the wrecked bureaucracy beforehand, getting more inspectors on the ground, etc., particularly as there was potentially money available for it. And it doesn’t seem like the federal government has been doing a good job at the part that they should be best at, which is coordinating the cleanup efforts in the various localities (and possibly coordinating payment for the shrimpers and them as well). But if he had been doing a great job at all that stuff, it very likely wouldn’t have prevented his popularity from taking a serious hit for this, and possibly preventing him from continuing with his legislative/policy momentum.

Which is the real problem with David Broder’s historical analysis: Our Only President has not wasted his massive legislative majorities, so even if he does become unpopular over something that isn’t his fault and he can’t make better, he will still leave with some accomplishments.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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