Matt Yglesias has been harping for some time on the notion that the only reason Obama is as unpopular as he is (and he’s not that unpopular in the general scheme of Presidents in the middle of their first term – Reagan and Clinton were both doing worse at this point and got reelected, and Ford, Carter and George H. W. Bush were all doing better, and lost) is that the economy is lousy. If unemployment drops, Obama will recover; if it stays high, he’ll continue to sink.
I think this true but incomplete. I think he’s right that the most important thing driving Obama’s approval is perceptions of the economy. But a close second is perceptions of how the Administration has responded to the economic crisis.
By that I don’t mean that the public is genuinely alarmed by the huge deficit that is partly the result of the stimulus bill. Professional economists don’t agree on whether rising public debt is part of the problem or part of the solution; I can’t imagine how the general public could possibly have articulate views on the question.
But I do think that much of the public has the perception that the Administration’s responses have been targeted at favored constituencies. The bank bailout benefited Wall Street. The GM bailout benefited the UAW. The stimulus bill benefited public employees. What, the great mass of relatively unengaged independent voters wonders, is Obama doing for the rest of us? You can defend every one of those decisions on the economic merits, but the perception that favored interests are getting all the favors remains.
I’m not sure what the best way is to combat that perception. Obama doesn’t make a very convincing populist and, anyway, the public has little confidence in those initiatives that the Administration has passed that, in addition to having substantive merits, were supposed to bolster the Administration’s image of taking on enemies of the people. If I’m not sure Yglesias’ description is complete, his prescription – do whatever it takes to get the economy moving and, specifically, reduce unemployment – is probably the only one that could actually work.
One thing I’d be curious to know: what are the perceptions of Obama among members of the media, relative to their perceptions of past Presidents? I ask because while this recession has generally been much kinder to more educated professionals than to people without a college degree, the news media is going through a fundamental restructuring that is absolutely wrenching. It’s probably the worst time in memory to try to make a living as a reporter, and reporters are the people who write these stories about how badly the President is doing.