Because I’m on deadline on another article, and because each post typically takes a couple of hours of research, I want to save some time and instead use today’s post to respond to the several good questions that have come in via the blog site and by email during the last few days. In no particular order:
In response to my reminder that Obama ran behind most Senate Democrats and Republicans in the 2008 elections, Jack Goodman wonders whether that is still relevant since Obama’s approval ratings are very high right now. I’ve touched on the topic of presidential approval ratings before, but a couple of points bear repeating: First, national approval ratings, although much hyped by the press as a barometer of presidential performance, actually are driven by factors that have almost nothing to do with the president’s performance. I’ll elaborate on this in a more complete post, but as evidence, note that Obama is still experiencing the presidential honeymoon, the period in which approval ratings are artificially inflated. All presidents go through this. More importantly, however, the point of my post is to remind you that Senators don’t much care what Obama’s national approval ratings are – they care what the voters in their state think about him. And in most of the 34 states that voted for a Senator in 2008, the Senate candidate was more popular than Obama. That’s why Republican Senators in particular feel little hesitation in voting against the stimulus bill. The key point here is that national approval ratings are not a very good indicator of presidential strength in Congress, media reports to the contrary notwithstanding. And we know that Obama’s rating will go down over time – not up.
Both Conor and Jack caution that it is very early in Obama’s term, and that there is still room for Obama to exercise bipartisanship on other issues. Their points are a useful reminder that some significant pieces of legislation – think Clinton’s support of NAFTA, or Bush’s No Child Left Behind and prescription drug reform – have passed Congress with bipartisan support. So we shouldn’t preclude any possibility of bipartisan action on other legislation that does not map onto the fault line separating Republicans and Democrats as neatly as the stimulus bill did. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that given the magnitude of the stimulus bill, and the fact that it was the first major piece of legislation to pass Congress, Obama missed a golden opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise to be an agent of change. Of course, the political scientist in me has always been skeptical, given the composition of Congress, that Obama would be any more successful than Bush or Clinton at toning down the politics of polarization. As a citizen, however, I am disappointed that he has started out as a “divider, not a uniter” (keeping in mind that we can’t blame the divisions in Congress solely on him.)
Regarding Senators staying in office longer than Obama – I’m not suggesting that Obama will be a one-term president. But even if he serves out two terms, most Senators will outlast him in office, given that the average Senator serves about two terms, or 12 years, in office.
As for Frank Rich! If I thought it would serve any useful purpose, someday I’d like to devote a post in which I take quotes from a particular columnist and use them to argue against that same columnist’s argument in another column. In the case of the stimulus bill, it is deliciously ironic to hear columnists on the Left like Rich throwing a hissy fit over Republican opposition to the stimulus bill. “It’s all about politics,” they fume. “Republicans are willing to see the nation’s economy get wrecked just so Obama will be voted out of office.” The problem, of course, is that many of these same columnists on the Left were urging the Democrats in Congress to block the bank bailout bill pushed by Bush (and later Obama) because it was a handout to the Wall St. fat cats! If I paid any attention to pundits like Rich, I might be mildly offended by the blatant hypocrisy in accusing Republicans of rank partisan demagoguery when they oppose government efforts to help the economy while defending Democrats’ opposition to government efforts to bail out the economy as principled. One could defend both positions on the merits of the argument, of course. But I’m hardpressed to see how pundits on the Left like Rich are so certain about the sordid motives behind the Republican opposition. It’s just a reminder of a point I’ve made often in previous posts regarding the Pundit’s Creed: “My motives are pure, my opponents are venal opportunists.” It’s columns like Rich’s that help contribute to the polarized attmosphere that Obama is finding so difficult to change. Of course as most of you know by reading my previous posts, the punditocracy’s primary purpose for me is to serve as a foil so I can present political science research. Otherwise I wouldn’t read any of them – Left or Right. And neither should you if you actually want to understand politics. They mostly make stuff up and call it an argument. It’s useful only for the entertainment value – not as a source of insight into presidential politics. For that, you come here!
I hope I answered most of your questions. Keep ‘em coming!