Thursday, June 2, 2011

Popularity vs. Performance

No two ways about it — it's a painful lesson for a president to learn.

That's a pretty general statement, isn't it? I mean, there are so many lessons that most presidents must learn — and nearly all of them are painful.

It seems to me that just about every president enters office with a certain reservoir of goodwill from the public — even from some who did not vote for him or who did not support him before fate intervened — so it can be deflating to discover that
  • public support in an election or a poll does not mean a lifelong commitment.

    This is a democracy. Periodically, incumbents are evaluated by the voters, who then decide whether the incumbent in question is deserving of another term. And, like it or not, voters are allowed to change their minds between elections.

    Sometimes, voters are persuaded to support a president they did not support the first time. And sometimes voters are persuaded to vote against a president they did support the first time.
Most presidents and their supporters seem to believe that popularity is the key to re–election success.

That is understandable, I suppose. I mean, their experience the first time was more like a beauty contest. It was all about potential, not about performance.

They don't fully realize that a re–election campaign is more like a performance review at work — and I don't know about you, but I have had the experience of working with people who were personally popular but professionally incompetent — or, at least, occupationally misplaced. They didn't remain employed too long.

If there will be a beauty contest in 2012, it will be on the Republican side. There are only a handful of living Republicans with any federal executive experience, and none is likely to seek the nomination — so the Republican race will be waged on the basis of potential.

We already know who the Democratic nominee will be — unless something of presently unimaginable proportions occurs in the coming months. He is the incumbent. His campaign cannot be waged on the basis of potential. It can only be waged on the basis of performance.

It is nice that he is perceived as likable. I'm sure that helped him when he got the job in the first place. But, when deciding whether to re–elect him, most voters will be weighing the potential against the reality.

When seen from that perspective, it is hard to imagine how Barack Obama can win a second term.

Of course, the president's defenders may say, this has been an extraordinarily bad period. That's true, but it is hard to see much daylight at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

After promising job numbers in the early months of this year, job creation in May appears to have been anemic, and tomorrow's jobs report looks likely to be grim, indeed.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it looks like the herky–jerky economy is back.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 300 points yesterday. Not so long ago, that would have been cataclysmic. These days, it's practically a drop in the bucket — a big drop but a drop, nevertheless.

U.S. auto sales dropped in May. That isn't a very good sign, coming as it did in what is probably the biggest month for high school and college commencements.

And, of course, gas prices are dropping — but they're still about 25% higher than they were a year ago.
  • It is bound to be frustrating for presidents to learn that even a Congress in which the majority belong to his party can prevent him from enacting his objectives.

    George W. Bush once mused that things would be a lot easier if he presided over a dictatorship. No doubt, they would be. But this isn't Nazi Germany or communist Russia. Once again, this is a democracy. Or, to be more precise, a republic.
Elected officials, from the White House on down, do not get to decide what the voters will use in their evaluations.

Some will rely on the frivolous or the ridiculous. Some will be more thoughtful in their assessments. But trying to pass off the economy as being in a "recovery" mode is — to use a phrase that Sarah Palin once used to her chagrin — like putting lipstick on a pig.

British commentator Nile Gardiner writes in The Telegraph that "[t]here is no feel good factor in America at the moment. But there is a great deal of uncertainty, nervousness, even fear over the future of the world's only superpower. This is hardly a solid foundation for a presidential victory for the incumbent."

And it is hardly reason for the president and his supporters to feel cocky about next year's election.

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