Ezra Klein has a post suggesting that President Obama’s poor approval ratings (Klein uses the 44 percent weekly average; the daily is even worse at 41 percent) are not necessarily a result of the unpopularity of the administration’s policies, but of “powerful structural forces in American politics that seem to drag down first-term presidents.”
Klein’s case runs on three premises: 1) Rather than reflecting a particular dissatisfaction for Obama’s policy choices, his approval ratings are similar to those of comparable presidents — who each pursued radically different policy agendas — at this stage of their first terms. 2) Rather than reflecting a particular dissatisfaction with Democratic rule, big midterm losses are a historical — and mathematical — inevitability for the party in power. And 3) rather than reflecting a particular dissatisfaction with the direction the country is heading, voter anger is the result of “a terrible and ongoing economic slump — weekly jobless claims hit 500,000 today — that is causing Americans immense pain and suffering.”
I think the problem with (3) is the most obvious: Klein says nothing about the possibility that there exists a causal nexus between Obama administration’s policies and said “terrible and ongoing economic slump,” and that voter disapproval is driven by the perception of that nexus.
But there are a number of other problems as well. For one thing, Klein cherry-picks examples in (1) to get the result he wants. When comparing Obama’s approval ratings at this stage to those of other presidents, he includes “the last three presidents who entered office amid a recession and didn’t have a country-unifying terrorist attack in their first year.” That’s Clinton, Reagan, and Carter — and conspicuously, not G.W. Bush. A fairly convenient way to read Bush’s first-term popularity out of the narrative as a byproduct of post-9/11 solidarity, without mentioning that the 2001-2002 recession Bush presided over was also in large part a byproduct of 9/11.
That’s particularly striking since Klein doesn’t mention the remarkable post-election “unity” boost that Obama enjoyed. While Klein notes that “Obama’s current approval rating of 44 percent beats Clinton, Carter and Reagan. . . at this point in their presidencies,” he doesn’t say that Obama started with approval ratings that were higher than all three, making his collapse more, not less, conspicuous.
Compare Obama’s starting point with those of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the successful two-term presidents Obama boosters often use to explain away his mid-term nosedive. Just after his inauguration, Obama’s approval rating stood at 67 percent. Clinton’s was 58 percent. Reagan’s was 51.
The only president in Klein’s group who started with approval numbers comparable to Obama’s was Jimmy Carter, at 66 percent. And we all know what happened there.
Klein is also doing some selective reading in (2) as well. In looking at midterm elections results for the party of the president in power, Klein glosses over G.W. Bush’s midterm gains and those of FDR — with whose first-term accomplishments Obama’s have frequently been compared — as statistical outliers, rather than as indicative of the effectiveness, or even the agency, of those administrations. To Klein it is just a “simple mathematical reality that large majorities are always likely to lose a lot of seats.”
That’s consistent with Klein’s overall theme of blaming Obama’s bad numbers on unnamed but “enormously powerful structural forces in American politics that seem to drag down first-term presidents.” But it seems wrong to resort to probabilities, or mysterious cosmic constants, to explain that which can be explained by human agency. It’s more plausible, and more informative, to see the poor prospects of Obama, and the similarly poor prospects of his predecessors, as evidence of — well, take your pick: political ineptitude, unpopular policies, over-promising, overreaching, all of the above. . . .
That these are common mistakes of first-term presidents doesn’t make them unavoidable mistakes, or somehow beyond the administration’s means to control. No sir, Obama did plenty to get himself into this mess.