Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Wimp Factor

I'm not really sure when "wimp" was introduced into presidential politics.

I suppose the concept has been around for a long time. The word "wimp" brings to mind a cowardly person, a poor leader, and that is something that I am sure has always been a concern for the voters — but there must have been other words for it.

"Wimp" is a term from the late 20th century, and it seems to conjure up images of appeasement — British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement in the 1930s, for instance, but I don't think "wimp" was a synonym for coward in those days.

(There was, at the time, a character in the Popeye cartoons named "Wimpy" who was always trying to borrow money to buy a hamburger — but I doubt that he had much to do with the terminology in political campaigns.)

Today, the word "wimpy" tends to be associated with Democratic politicians.

I bring this up because the word "wimp" came to mind today when I was reading a Gallup report that said Americans were less likely to see Barack Obama as a strong leader now than they were when he took office.

This "stands in contrast to the stability in the trend for two other personal dimensions," says Gallup. Those two dimensions are concerned with his ability to empathize with his fellow Americans and whether he shares the values of his constituents.

In truth, Obama's standing in all three categories has declined since he took office, but the decline has been much more pronounced in his perception as a strong, decisive leader — and Democrats seem to have chosen to "accentuate the positive," as the old song says.

There has been less movement in the public's perception of Obama as being able to empathize with their problems or whether he shares their values. Hence, those ratings appear relatively stable.

And much of the emphasis that I have heard from Democrats who have been promoting the re–election of the president has centered on those two things — he understands what you're up against and he believes the same things you do.

At first glance, that might seem like a logical approach. But I believe it is the wrong approach to take. The poll numbers suggest that there has not been much movement in either of those categories. Those attitudes are set, and there is little to be gained. Those who disagree that Obama understands what they face every day or that he shares their values are in the minority, but they have felt that way all along.

There has been a lot of movement, however, on the question of whether Obama is a strong leader. People may think that you empathize with their problems and that you share their values, but if they think you aren't a strong leader, you might as well start packing your things.

The situation should be even more alarming for Obama because he has fallen from such heights. When he became president, Gallup reports, nearly three–quarters of Americans saw him as a strong leader. A year later, that rating was down to 60% and, today, it is down to 52%.

The growing crisis in the Middle East, along with the higher gas prices it has spawned, may force Obama to do things he doesn't want to do. It may alienate him from some on the far left. It might even lead to a challenge within Obama's party.

But the alternative is to risk being labeled a "wimp," and that has not been a good thing for Democrats in the past.

When I was a child, many Democrats in Congress were considered "hawks" because they supported Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy. That was a tough image, especially when compared with the equivalent term that was used for opponents of the Vietnam policy — "doves."

More and more, Democrats in general got a reputation for being doves, for being weak, indecisive, easily pushed around. I don't think it started in the 1960s.

I was pretty young during the 1968 campaign, and the Democratic nominee that year, Hubert Humphrey, had been LBJ's vice president. He was held accountable for Johnson's unpopular Vietnam policy, which could hardly be described as "wimpy."

It might have gotten its start when George McGovern was the party's nominee in 1972. But it wasn't mentioned much (if at all) in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was nominated for the first time. His opponent, President Ford, had his own problems trying to convince the voters that he hadn't made a deal with the man he succeeded and later pardoned, Richard Nixon.

But, when Carter sought re–election in 1980, the word "wimp" was being used to describe Democrats on a fairly regular basis — and the next couple of standard bearers, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, resorted to ridiculous measures to try to refute a negative.

Then, I guess, Republicans experienced something of a wimp backlash.

Ironically, it didn't really come in the field of foreign policy. In 1992, George H.W. Bush was on pretty solid ground following Operation Desert Storm.

No, the backlash came over the economy. Bush had gone back on his pledge not to raise taxes, and the economy was in a recession. It was nothing like what Americans have experienced in recent years, but, in the context of recent history, it was unsettling enough.

I have always felt it played more of a role in Bush's defeat that year than Ross Perot's presence on the ballot — no matter how much Republicans wanted to blame Perot.

Thus, I suppose, it can be said that Bush was seen as something of a wimp when it came to domestic issues. The idea was that he was weak and indecisive on economic issues. At the very least, it could be said that he was out of touch.

In the last 20 years, Democrats have appeared increasingly eager to take positions that are in contrast to their unfavorable image. During the Clinton years, the White House often found itself involved in conflicts abroad — and it was not always clear whether American involvement was legitimate.

There were those who contended Clinton was simply using situations to manipulate public opinion. Perhaps he did, at times, but, if he did, he wasn't the first — and no one ever satisfactorily demonstrated that he was guilty of that kind of manipulation, anyway.

Democrats were sensitive to the charge, though. In 1998, when much of the talk about Clinton centered on his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, American plans to strike where Osama bin Laden was believed to be staying were ultimately abandoned for a couple of reasons — in public, the administration said children's toys had been seen in surveillance footage and there were concerns that civilians and their children might be hurt or killed, but, in private, the administration was concerned about public relations and the perception that the actions were intended to divert attention from the president's relationship with an intern.

A few years later, bin Laden put the wimp factor right back on the political map with the September 11 attacks. In 2004, Democrats were so concerned about the need to look strong and decisive that they nominated a Vietnam veteran to run for president — even though, upon his return from southeast Asia, John Kerry made a name for himself speaking out against the war.

In the early 1970s, that was a courageous position for Kerry to take, but, 30 years later, in the aftermath of a coordinated and unprovoked attack on both civilian and military targets in early 21st century America, it was seen as weak, appeasing, compromising.

If it hadn't been for the economic collapse in September 2008, Obama might have had to defend himself against charges of being a wimp as well. His campaign began before the recession did, and, at that time, it was widely expected that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would dominate the 2008 race.

But, instead, the economy dominated, and Obama won, in large part because he was the anti–Bush.

Fast forward about 2½ years. The economy is still struggling, but the Democrats apparently have settled on the updated version of their strategy from 2008. They plan to remind people that it is George W. Bush's fault — unless there is a sudden and, at this point, completely unexpected drop in unemployment, in which case (in keeping with an old American tradition) the administration will take full credit for it.

Perhaps, if you are running for re–election and your economic policies have not improved the situation, that is your only option, your only excuse — especially when your party also enjoyed majorities in Congress that made just about any legislative initiatives possible for roughly six months.

But the Democrats didn't seize their opportunity. That was their fault.

I think it is a mistake to continue to point fingers. It comes across as whining. Part of being a strong leader is being willing to take responsibility when things don't go well.

Americans liked it when John F. Kennedy said, after the Bay of Pigs disaster, "Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan" and told them he would take responsibility for the setback, even though the plan had been put in motion during his predecessor's presidency — and he had been president for only a few months.

They liked it, too, when Harry Truman put a sign on his desk that said "The Buck Stops Here." They don't like it when presidents pass the buck. And they don't like would–be presidents who seem likely to pass the buck.

They like it when you "feel their pain," as Clinton put it. That was part of George H.W. Bush's problem in 1992. Too many Americans thought he had no clue what life was like for most Americans. And they like it when you share their values.

But they'll trade both of those things for a president who isn't a wimp, who will stand up for America.

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