Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hero Worship

A new presidency is sort of like a new automobile. It retains its original value while it is in the showroom, but it immediately starts losing value when it is driven off the lot.

The most tangible way of measuring the current value of a president is via approval ratings. They weren't measured for the first 31 presidencies so it is only possible to make educated guesses as to how popular or unpopular any of those presidents may have been at a particular time. The Roper Center has been charting presidential approval in various surveys (mostly Gallup's findings until the Clinton presidency) since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Since Roosevelt's day, there have been 13 presidents (including FDR), and each has enjoyed, at some point, an approval rating as high as 67% — often higher. Barack Obama's high–water mark, according to Roper, was 76% — a level he reached back in February. From that time, Obama's approval rating has been sliding, as it does for all presidents although not in identical increments.

Obama's approval rating hovered in the upper 50s to low 60s into the summer, and the last approval number he had that exceeded 60 was recorded in a CNN survey back in June. CNN's findings are suspect in some circles because CNN is perceived to be a supporter of the president.

Then Obama's approval numbers slipped into the 50s as he and his vice president blithely dismissed June's job losses (nearly half a million) and turned their attention instead to a Supreme Court nomination that never appeared to be in jeopardy, a "teachable moment" over a beer with a white cop and a black professor, a speech to the nation's schoolchildren and the ongoing battle to reform health care.

A Fox survey in mid–October was the first to show Obama's approval rating below 50%. Some of the president's more ardent supporters will point out (and not without some justification) that Fox has been a frequent and vocal critic of the Obama administration, but Roper reports that Fox did find and report approval ratings exceeding 60% in all but one of the surveys it conducted between January and May.

Well, last month Fox reported that Obama's approval rating had fallen to 46% — which, coincidentally, is the same approval rating George W. Bush received in a Fox survey conducted the first week he was in office.

When the 2008 candidates for the presidency began lining up, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — mostly Iraq — were the hot–button issues. The economy hadn't imploded yet. And Obama was a consistent critic of the administration's Iraq war policies, which drew many young and minority voters to his campaign.

This week, Obama announced his plan for escalating the war in Afghanistan — as part of his strategy to bring American military presence there to an end. The decision may sound logical, even to diehard opponents of the war. In fact, a CNN poll indicates that most Americans agree with the president on this issue.

But Dana Milbank of the Washington Post reminds readers that liberal filmmaker Michael Moore posted an open letter to Obama at his website the day before Obama's speech at West Point and warned him that escalating the war in Afghanistan was the "worst possible thing you could do." Moore warned Obama that he was about to "turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics."

Milbank agrees with Moore that Obama's young supporters will be disillusioned by this move.
"Even before the surge announcement, support among liberals for Obama's Afghanistan policy had dropped 22 points since July, to 59 percent from 81 percent, according to a Post–ABC News poll. Overall liberal support for Obama had drifted down to 80 percent from 94 percent in the spring — and, given the noisy complaints from the left last week, that number seems likely to fall further."

Milbank writes that this "was bound to happen eventually.

"Obama had become to his youthful supporters a vessel for all of their liberal hopes. They saw him as a transformational figure who would end war, save the Earth from global warming, restore the economy — and still be home for dinner. They lashed out at anybody who dared to suggest that Obama was just another politician, subject to calculation, expediency and vanity like all the rest."

And Milbank says Obama has brought much of this anticipated negative response on himself "for encouraging the messianic cult as he stumped for change and hope."

All that may be true. And I admit that I have been bothered at times by the intense adoration of his loyalists, who often seem — to me, anyway — far too eager to let Obama off the hook for things they would be hesitant to overlook in someone else.

But, in Obama's defense, he did suggest during the campaign that he wanted to pursue a policy that would bring the conflict to a successful conclusion. At the very least, that means leaving a country that is stable enough to resist a Taliban takeover.

Obama was a frequent critic of the Iraq War and, if he sticks to his previously announced timetable, most of the troops in Iraq will be gone by next Labor Day. But his objectives are different in Afghanistan, and they will take longer to achieve because Afghanistan was neglected so much before Obama took office. His comments on the campaign trail indicate that he has always understood that.

His policy may not be popular, but it is consistent with what he said during the campaign. If his young and ethnic supporters don't get it, they weren't paying attention.

Well, I guess we'll find out when the next approval ratings come out.

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