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It's the Economy, Stupid

Understanding Obama's plummeting approval ratings

Steve Chapman
January 28, 2010

The story goes that a dog food company brought out a new mix, which sold poorly. The people in charge tried new ads. They tried different packaging. They targeted particular consumers. Nothing worked.

The chief executive called in his top managers and demanded an explanation. The reply: “Dogs hate it.”

With his approval ratings falling, his party improbably losing a Massachusetts election, and his legislative agenda derailed, President Obama is now subject to elaborate diagnoses of where he went wrong. He is too liberal or not liberal enough. His health care reform is too ambitious or too timid. He is a closet radical or a flunky for Wall Street.

It is no surprise to hear journalists, commentators, and political operatives spin theories for his problems. That is what they get paid to do. Nor is it unexpected that their explanations invariably support their own agendas. You will never hear a conservative say the president could succeed by being less conservative, or a liberal suggest that he really needs to accommodate Republican concerns.

But in this case the analyses are about as relevant as Obama’s horoscope. The simplest explanation is the best one. If dogs hate a dog food, nothing else matters. If Americans are afflicted with a dismal economy, they are not going to be enchanted with their leaders, particularly the most prominent one.

Decades from now, students of history unfamiliar with Harry Reid and Scott Brown will have no trouble grasping how a special election went badly for the party in power. All they will have to do is look at unemployment when Obama was elected and when Massachusetts went to the polls.

Between October 2008 and December 2009, the rate rose from 6.6 percent to 10 percent nationally. In Massachusetts, it went from 5.5 percent to 9.1 percent. Guess what? Nobody likes it, and voting against the Democratic candidate was an easy way to express that discontent.

The connection between political fortunes and material concerns is not exactly a revelation. A sour economy is what torpedoed Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. It’s also the primary reason that the Republicans lost in 2008 to Obama—not his eloquence or policy positions.

It is deeply unfair to expect politicians to take a sickly economy and instantly restore it to health. Yet people, including politicians, act as though elected officials have magic dust that they can sprinkle on the productive sector anytime they want.

A spokesman for Harold Ford Jr., who is expected to run for the New York Senate seat held by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, charged the other day that “unemployment is rising and the economy around the state isn’t improving on her watch.” He didn’t mention that the same would be true if that office were occupied by Ford or John Maynard Keynes or Saint Francis of Assisi. Blame Gillibrand because unemployment has risen? Ford might as well blame her because the tide is out.

Obama, being president, has more effect on our economic fortunes, but even his power is modest, particularly in the short run. His policies, smart or stupid, are not the chief reason unemployment has gone up, and they will not be the chief factor when it goes down. But just as he gets the blame now, he will get the credit then.

At that point, many of the qualities blamed for his current unpopularity will take on a different appearance. Instead of looking cold and detached, he will be seen as calm and wise. Instead of appearing ineffectual, he will exude competence. Policies denounced as pallid or radical will seem just right.

Consider Ronald Reagan. In 1982, thanks to a brutal recession, his approval rating fell to a puny 43 percent. Two years later, he was re-elected by a landslide.

Reagan hadn’t suddenly transformed himself into a different president. The country didn’t undergo an ideological shift. He was merely the beneficiary of a turn in the business cycle. Maybe his policies helped, and maybe they didn’t. Either way, the rising prosperity cast him in a flattering light.

Obama’s approval rating is higher than Reagan’s was in 1982. So neither his critics nor his supporters should make too much of the current polls. Right now, he is stumbling in the dark. By 2012, it may be morning in America.

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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