Saturday, June 20, 2009

Obama's Honeymoon

Polls, as I am often reminded, are snapshots of public opinion at a particular point in time. Their findings are not carved in stone. But most are pretty reliable barometers, thanks in large part to the work of George Gallup, who pioneered survey sampling techniques.

Gallup, the founder of the Gallup Poll, was dedicated to maintaining his independence and objectivity. He refused to conduct surveys for special interest groups, especially political parties — and that, along with a track record of success, has made the Gallup Poll a reliable source for measurements of public opinion.

Therefore, when Gallup says something, it's worthy of your attention.

Lydia Saad reports for Gallup that Barack Obama's job approval rating in daily tracking polls has dropped to 58% for the first time in his 5–month–old presidency. She acknowledges, however, that this is "not dissimilar to the 59% he has received on four other occasions."

In some quarters, this will no doubt spark speculation about whether Obama's honeymoon with the public is ending.

But it seems to me that isn't exactly the question that one should be asking.

Most presidents begin their presidencies enjoying a certain amount of support from the public — including presumably hopeful support from some who voted for a different candidate in the election. The level of public support varies from president to president and can be affected in different ways by the circumstances in which the new chief executive took office.

Inevitably, public enthusiasm begins to wane. The reservoir of public good will begins to run dry. The numbers begin to decline. Different presidents react to this in different ways.

One thing is for sure. At some point, this honeymoon period will end. The laws of nature — or, at least, gravity — apply. What goes up must come down.

Today is exactly five months since Obama took the oath of office. Around the five–month mark in their presidencies
  • George W. Bush enjoyed the approval of 61% of respondents to a Gallup survey in June 2001.

    A few weeks earlier, the Bush tax cuts were signed into law, and Timothy McVeigh was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

  • Bill Clinton, who, like Obama, took office with his party in control of both houses of Congress, had the approval of only 39% of respondents to a Gallup survey in June 1993.

    A couple of months earlier, the standoff between ATF agents and David Koresh's followers in Waco, Texas, ended with a fire at the Branch Davidian compound, perhaps reminding voters of the problems Clinton had getting an attorney general with no confirmation baggage.

  • George H.W. Bush would see his approval numbers reach incredible heights in the aftermath of the Gulf War, but he wasn't doing too badly in June 1989, when 70% of respondents to a Gallup Poll approved of his job performance.

    In June of '89, the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred in China (the country where the newly inaugurated president had been U.S. envoy in the 1970s), and the Ayatollah Khomeini died in Iran.

  • Ronald Reagan is probably the modern president who is most comparable to Obama. Like Obama, he took office during a difficult recession. Recent unemployment numbers have been characterized as being the highest since early in Reagan's presidency. And Obama, no doubt, would like to emulate Reagan by winning re–election in 2012.

    Numerically, Obama seems to be right on track. In June 1981, Gallup reported that 59% of respondents approved of the job Reagan was doing. Part of that may have been a sign of the admiration Americans had for the way Reagan had recovered from the attempt on his life in March.

  • But Obama is not doing quite as well as Jimmy Carter. Even though a majority of his countrymen decided, by November 1980, that his presidency was a failure, Carter's approval rating, in a June 1977 Gallup survey, stood at 63%.

    I'm not sure why Carter enjoyed that kind of popularity after five months. Gas prices were relatively stable — around 55–60 cents a gallon — and Carter had been trying to cultivate public approval in his first months as president, at one point going on the radio with Walter Cronkite for a call–in program.

  • I always feel torn when I discuss Gerald Ford's presidency. He took office after Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, and the public's distaste for Nixon in those days was so intense that I think nearly anyone alive — with the likely exception of Charles Manson — would have taken office with high approval numbers. Ford's job approval rating actually stood at 71% in the first weeks after he took office, but his numbers rapidly declined after he pardoned Nixon. By the time he reached his five–month mark, in January 1975, Ford's approval rating, in a Gallup survey, stood at 37%.

    I'm sure it didn't help that Watergate conspirators John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were found guilty in early January, reminding the public of Nixon's role in the scandal and Ford's pardon of Nixon. Ford always insisted that it was the right thing to do, and perhaps it was — but it wasn't the smartest political move to make.

  • Nixon is remembered today for his abysmal approval ratings at the end of his presidency, but at the five–month mark, a June 1969 Gallup survey gave him a 63% approval rating.

    In fact, Nixon's approval rating for the entire first year of his presidency was remarkably consistent. He was mostly in the 60s, with his highest rating (67%) coming in November 1969 and his lowest rating (56%) coming in October 1969. Perhaps that was reflecting the course of events overseas. National Moratorium demonstrations were held in mid–October and, in early November, Nixon asked the "silent majority" to support his Vietnam policies.
The point is that presidential job approval ratings seem to lead lives of their own.

It is pointless to draw conclusions based on five–month approval ratings. With the exception of Ford, each of the presidents I mentioned had, at their five–month mark, more than 3½ years remaining before the next election — plenty of time for anything to happen.

The question is not whether the honeymoon is over. It may not be over now, but, as I say, the honeymoon will end for Obama. So what is the question the president should be asking now?

Of course, he has many political advisors around him, people who have spent their careers anticipating such a moment and trying to prepare for it. I'm sure most have their own ideas about what he should do. And I'm sure Obama will listen to what each of his advisors has to say. I think that was one of the things that endeared him to so many of his supporters — his faith in that Lincolnesque "team of rivals" approach to problem solving.

And some of those advisors will emphasize an ability to recognize when the honeymoon is over.

But what then? If the honeymoon will eventually end (as, history tells us, it will), what is the strategy?

Bill Maher kind of put things into perspective for me last week, talking about Obama's shortcomings when it comes to the major achievements that everyone, his supporters as well as his opponents, believed would be his in short order. We knew it would take time to turn the economy around. But most people seemed to believe he would lock up things like health care reform fairly early and decisively instead of engaging in "nibbling that leaves insurance companies still running the show."

And, as Maher observes, "The banks that brought us to financial ruin and got bailout money are laughing at us about how easy it was to get back to business as usual." That bailout thing actually began on Bush's watch, but it was initiated by the congressional Democrats with whom Obama is working today.

"And scientists keep saying that if we want to keep living, you know, on earth, it's kind of essential that we reduce carbon dioxide by 40% in the next 10 years," Maher says. "Obama's bill calls for 4%."

Obama and the congressional Democrats like to say — or at least imply — that "we won."

So my advice would be this: Then start acting like you won. It isn't necessary to get the other party's permission. God knows the Republicans didn't seek the Democrats' approval in the first half of 2001, and their congressional majorities were much slimmer.

When Al Franken is certified the winner of the Senate race in Minnesota (as I am sure he ultimately will be), the Democrats will hold the majorities they need in both houses of Congress to do whatever they want to do, filibuster be damned. A bipartisan approach will not be necessary. What will be necessary is a president who knows how to use presidential authority to keep the lawmakers from his party in line and achieve legislative goals.

If the approval numbers tell you nothing else, they should tell you that every president begins his presidency with at least some political capital. But the capital must be spent. You can't save that capital for a rainy day. It can disappear without warning.

So I recommend that Obama use it to benefit those voters who helped him get where he is — even if he isn't particularly committed to their cause. Keep them happy. Whether it's something he's shown support for in the past — like abortion rights and affordable health care — or something he hasn't — like same–sex marriage or ending the war on drugs — now is the time to give his voters some of that change they were told they could believe in.

As Maher says, "[T]he 'audacity of hope' part is over. Right now, I'm hoping for a little more audacity."

Or, as my mother used to say, "Actions speak louder than words."

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