Monthly Archives: February 2011

Is George W. Bush One of Our Ten Greatest Presidents?

Yes, he is.

At least that’s one superficial way to interpret the results of Gallup’s most recent annual President’s Day poll.  When asked to name the greatest president, Bush came in tied for 10th with Thomas Jefferson in votes received, just behind Harry Truman.  Ronald Reagan was judged the greatest president, ahead of Abraham Lincoln.  With one exception (Kennedy in 2000), either Lincoln or Reagan has topped the last eight Gallup surveys asking Americans to name the greatest president.  (Obama ranks 5th, by the way, in this latest poll).

Upon closer inspection, however, Bush’s popular ranking seems much less impressive. (For that matter, so is Obama’s.) To begin, the survey only asks respondents to name the greatest president; they are not required to rank all the presidents.  This is for good reason – it appears they can’t remember most of them! Indeed, the results suggest that respondents drew a blank after considering the historically most famous presidents – Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and the two Roosevelts.  With these names exhausted, the default option then became choosing among those presidents who served within living memory.  In effect, that precluded anyone serving before Truman, which evidently is as far back as Americans’ collective memory goes.

This meant that a few presidents received most of the votes.  That made it possible for Bush to come in 10th although he received only 2% of the votes. (With the poll’s margin of error at +/- 4%, it means you can essentially throw a blanket over the bottom ten presidents on the list; their ratings are virtually indistinguishable.) Reagan, in contrast, topped the list with 19% of the votes cast for the nation’s greatest president.  Here’s the list of everyone receiving votes:

Note that there was a clear partisan bias in the results. Among Democrats, the greatest presidents was, drum roll please….Bill Clinton!  He received 22% of Democrats’ votes, edging Kennedy’s 18% with Obama third at 11%.  Indeed, he finished third overall, ahead of Washington, both Roosevelts, and Jefferson and Jackson. Not bad for a president who was impeached!

Before castigating Democrats as historically-challenged, however, note that among Independents Clinton placed third, at 11%, comfortably behind Lincoln (19%) and Reagan (16%), but ahead of Washington (10%) and FDR (9%).  Among Republicans, Reagan was the runaway winner with 38% of the vote, followed by Washington (14%) and Lincoln (13%).  George W. Bush came in 5th among Republicans, with 5% of the votes.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bush fares far worse in the collective judgment of my academic peers in history and political science.  As I’ve noted in previous blogs, these judgments by scholars are also not without controversy.  Nonetheless – without making any pronouncements regarding the relative wisdom of presidential “experts” compared to the public – it is interesting to analyze how scholars rank George W. Bush.  At about the same time that Gallup released its survey results, a group of 47 British academics specializing in American history and politics announced their rankings of every president who served during the period from 1789 to 2009 (excluding William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, who both died shortly after taking office).  The results were based on the cumulative total of ranking in five categories, including:

  • vision/agenda-setting
  • domestic leadership
  • foreign policy leadership
  • moral authority
  • positive historical significance of their legacy

Here Bush fares much less well, coming in at 31st among the 40 presidents ranked. He is dead last among the post-World War II “modern” presidents, several slots behind his father who is ranked 22nd, followed by Nixon at 23 and Ford at 24.  Carter is 18th and Clinton 19th.  Reagan ranks eighth among the British scholars.

The British ranking of Bush is slightly more positive than where their American counterparts place him.  If we include the five previous polls by American scholars that include Bush, he comes out 34th among all presidents, but his rankings are boosted by two early surveys made midway through his presidency that placed him 23rd and 19th.  Since leaving the presidency, American surveys have ranked him 37th, 36th and 39th.

Of course, as I’ve previously discussed, these rankings are based on different methodologies that make comparing them somewhat problematic.  On the other hand, there is remarkable consistency for some presidents whose rankings span surveys conducted decades apart. So, for the most part, every one of the 17 surveys of which I’m aware dating back to the initial one put together by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. in the 1940’s places Lincoln, Washington and FDR in the top three.

On the other hand, there are some noticeable variations across these 17 surveys as well.  One of the biggest jumps is made by Dwight Eisenhower, who is ranked only 22nd in the first survey in which he is included conducted during the early 1960’s, shortly after he stepped down, but who now ranks 9th overall based on all 17 surveys.  Eisenhower’s rise was fueled primarily by archives released in the 1970’s that led many scholars, most notably Fred Greenstein, to reevaluate Eisenhower “hidden-hand” leadership. But it also reflects the passage of time. With hindsight, the years of general peace and prosperity enjoyed during the Eisenhower era seemed far more impressive after Vietnam, stagflation and myriad other controversial events since.

Eisenhower’s rise is a reminder that these current rankings are not set in stone.  One crude way to gauge the relative uncertainty of scholars’ rankings is to measure the standard deviation of each president’s average ranking based on all 17 polls. (Think of standard deviation as the “average” spread around each president’s mean ranking; the greater the deviation, the larger the discrepancy among scholars’ evaluations.)

Which President’s ranking has the highest deviation?  Not surprisingly, it is George W. Bush’s; although ranked on average 34th, the standard deviation around that slot is 7.5 positions.  Note, however, that this reflects the inclusion of the more positive evaluations he received while in office; if we include only his post-presidential rankings, the standard deviation decreases considerably.

Among those presidents who rank among the top ten in standard deviation, signifying greater uncertainty in their average ranking, only one served in the post-World War II modern era.  That is Ronald Reagan, who is ranked 16th overall but comes in third with a standard deviation of 6.7 slots.  (The other “modern” presidents with high standard deviations in their rankings are Jimmy Carter (4.73) and Richard Nixon (4.68), who rank 11th and 12th respectively.)  Evidently scholars are still struggling to come to grips with Reagan’s role across a range of issues, such as economic growth in the 1980’s, budget deficits, and ending the Cold War, to name just a few.  It may also be the case that Reagan is a more polarizing figure – one that splits scholars along ideological or partisan lines, although this is hard to assess without knowing who conducts the rankings, and something about their backgrounds as well.

Bush concludes his memoirs Decision Points by reminding readers that at one point Reagan was “denounced” as a “dunce and warmonger”, and now is viewed as “Great Communicator” who helped win the Cold War.  Whether one agrees with Bush’s evaluation of Reagan or not , it does raise the question whether he will also see a reappraisal of his presidency, one that will place it in a more favorable light.   It is far too early to know where he will ultimately rank.  But I think his future ranking is likely to depend on two factors. First, as with Eisenhower, will scholars digging through the archival record discover evidence that will cause them to reevaluate Bush’s decisionmaking? I’m skeptical that this type of archival-based reevaluation will happen because, unlike with Eisenhower, there has never been much doubt regarding Bush’s decisiveness.  He was clearly in charge of his presidency (although some still speculate that Richard Cheney was something akin to Bush’s “co-president”).

The second factor is whether subsequent events will make Bush’s presidency look more positive.  What might those events be?  It seems to me that the lynchpin is what happens in Iraq. If it becomes a functioning democracy (preferably one that pumps huge quantities of oil!), against a backdrop of a Mideast region where democracy movements have broken out all over, it will inevitably raise the question – a not uncontroversial one, to be sure – regarding whether and to what extent Bush’s policies can be said to have contributed to this development.

We are far too close to Bush’s presidency, and events far too fluid, to make this assessment now, of course (although I fully expect partisans to immediately jump on me for even suggesting he might be credited with influencing reform in the Mideast!)  But I don’t find it far fetched to believe several decades from now Bush’s historical ranking may well improve, much as Reagan’s and Eisenhower’s have.  His ranking will also depend in large part on judgments regarding the War on Terror and the relative blame/credit he gets for 9-11 and for keeping the nation safe from attack in the post-9-11 years.  That judgment too will depend on events occurring after Bush has left office.

In the meantime, let the debate begin!

“Take a Law, Grace”: How Presidents Really Make Policy

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was known to turn to his secretary, Grace Tully, and begin dictation by saying, “Grace, take a law”.  Roosevelt’s quip was a play on line from a George M. Cohan musical, I’d Rather Be Right, which ran on Broadway during FDR’s presidency in the 1930’s.  (For the archivally-interested among you, Tully’s papers, along with those of FDR’s other primary secretary Missy LeHand, were finally acquired by the FDR Library and opened to researchers late last year.) It is appealing to think of FDR sitting behind his desk, head thrown back, his mouth clenching the ever-present cigarette holder at a jaunty angle, while he dictated the legislation that formed the core of the New Deal. Alas, the image is largely fanciful.  In fact, presidents rarely “make” laws so much as they choose among alternatives presented to them by their staff. Indeed, most presidential decisionmaking occurs at the end of a long process in which options are developed, debated and redrafted by aides before they are finally presented to the president for his ultimate decision.  To be sure, presidents can and do intervene in this process, and their initial preferences usually guide debate.  But those preferences are rarely so well refined that they dictate the details of legislative proposals or executive orders or the fine print of any of the vehicles presidents use to “make” policy.

I was reminded of this after spending a week this past January at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, putting the finishing touches on my book on White House staffing.  Carter’s papers, as is the case with the other eight presidents whose archives I’ve explored, provide a useful reminder that presidents rarely have the luxury of delving deeply into the substantive details of a policy decision.  To illustrate, consider the process which led to Carter’s “unilateral” decision to reorganize the Executive Office of the Presidency (EOP) early in his presidency.  (The EOP houses the president’s major staff support agencies, including the White House staff, and the Office of Management and Budget.)  During his 1976 presidential campaign, Carter had pledged to combat waste and inefficiency in government by reducing and reorganizing departments and agencies – something he had done as Governor of Georgia. After persuading Congress to grant him reorganization authority in 1977 (authority which had lapsed under Nixon’s presidency) Carter directed his staff to begin the reorganization process by examining the EOP first, focusing initially on his own White House staff.  The idea was that by making staff reductions within his own White House first, Carter would demonstrate his commitment to making the hard choices necessary to bring down the budget deficit by reducing waste and inefficiency.

The process of reorganizing the EOP, including the White House staff, actually began during Carter’s transition, as aides solicited input from scholars and others familiar with the EOP staff agencies and functions, examined their legal basis and tried to anticipate the political costs and benefits associated with different reorganization proposals. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition to the proposed cuts came from Carter’s own White House aides.  While most of them agreed with the need to scale back the White House staff, almost without except each of them believed their own staff should be exempt. As an example of this resistance, here’s Hamilton Jordan’s memo to Harrison Wellford and A.D. Frazier, the two aides who developed the staff cutting options.  Jordan was Carter’s top White House aide, but he wasn’t exempt from the staff cuts.  Note his complaint that the other White House staff units weren’t suffering staff reduction to the degree that his was, including his hand-written indication that “I’m serious!” (HINT: to read the document, you may need to click on the image and then enlarge it via the zoom/enlarge command).

Despite the internal opposition from Jordan and others, within three months Wellford and Frazier had developed four options for cutting the White House staff, ranging from a 30% to 20% reduction.   On July 9, 1977, Jordan presented these options, summarized in a cover memo stapled to a more detailed description of each option, to Carter.  The following images show Carter’s margin notes on Jordan’s decision memorandum.  Note Carter’s decision to pursue the most drastic, 30%, staff reduction, signified by the “J.C.” initialed at the bottom of the last page below.

And so the decision was made. However, by the end of Carter’s presidency, his aides were complaining that they had cut too much, and that Carter’s presidency was suffering because of it. (Interestingly, this entire exercise was repeated by Bill Clinton when he first took office, and with pretty much the same results). My point, however, is not to debate the choice Carter made.  Instead, it is to point out that even in something as personal as reorganizing his own White House staff, Carter’s “unilateral” decision to reduce personnel by 30% was based on alternatives largely developed by his aides, using research and assumptions of which Carter was only marginally aware.  True, his aides tried to keep Carter informed as the options were developed, and the paper record cannot fully capture the degree to which Carter discussed the reorganization effort.  Nonetheless, Carter’s decision options were primarily determined by his aides; he didn’t sit down and dictate a staff reorganization proposal on his own.

And that is how most presidential decisions are made. Presidents deal with a never-ending series of memoranda that cross their desk on a daily basis, asking them to choose among different options developed by aides, often with deadlines looming that leave little time for careful reflection. Rarely do presidents have the luxury to delve as deeply into the substance of these issues and choices as they might like. Indeed, they are lucky if they can affect these options at the margins.  More generally,  the president must depend on the expertise and judgment of his (someday her) advisers, knowing full well that the repercussions of the choices they make will fall on their shoulders, and not their aides’.  George W. Bush’s memoirs Decision Points (of which I will have much to say in a future post) focuses on the key decisions he made during his presidency.  What it does not reveal, however, is how those decisions and option papers were developed en route to his desk; only rarely do we get a hint that his mistakes – and he admits to many – were rooted in part on the advice and information provided by others.  Bush’s willingness to take the blame is an admirable trait, to be sure, and reflects the reality that, in the end, presidents are the ones who are rightly held accountable for the choices they make. But it also gives a misleading picture of the way decisions are made.

In a television interview two years into his presidency John Kennedy acknowledged the difference between campaigning and governing, and in his perspective versus those of his advisers. When the interviewer asked him what he had learned about being president, JFK responded: “So that I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.”

Egypt, Iraq and the Limits of Presidential Power

One of the enduring debates among presidency scholars is whether and to what degree presidents are more powerful in foreign than in domestic affairs. The answer, as you might expect, depends in large part on how one defines “power” and “foreign” affairs. I won’t bother taking you through the extended debate among scholars, much less deign to provide an answer (as with most complicated questions, the best response is “it depends”), but the intellectual roots of this controversy date back at least to a famous article published in 1966 by Aaron Wildavsky in which he claimed that presidents in fact wield much more power in foreign affairs, in part because they have a near monopoly on crucial information pertaining to international events and because there are fewer competing power centers within the foreign affairs bureaucracy.   Two recent events remind me of why I have long been skeptical of this portion of Wildavsky’s argument, and why I don’t think presidents view themselves as very powerful in foreign affairs at all. .

To begin, as most of you know, yesterday in Egypt (their time) it appeared that President Mubarak was poised to step down. Testifying today (our time) before the House Intelligence Committee, CIA director Leon Panetta seemed to confirm that expectation.  When Mubarak subsequently went on state television to announce that although he was relinquishing some, or all, of his powers, he was not stepping down, the CIA had to put out a public clarification noting that Panetta was reacting to news stories, and not basing his statements on any inside intelligence gathered by the CIA.  Panetta’s actions come on the heels of reported exasperation within the White House regarding the intelligence community’s failure to give any hint of the impending uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the Obama administration is unsure of how to respond to the unrest in Egypt. Most noticeably, the President’s national security team and the State Department issued different responses to news stories reporting that Mubarak’s son had been removed from power and that Mubarak was ceding power to his new vice president Omar Suleiman. (Predictably news stories covering this internal debate focused on the role of Frank Wisner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unofficial Egyptian envoy who is also working with lobbying firm Patton Boggs – a firm that has Mubarak as a client. As I have written on many previous occasions, the divide between the White House and State Department is rooted in differing institutional vantage points more than in personalities – this runs deeper than Clinton/Wisner vs. Obama).

The second piece of evidence pertaining to the Wildavsky thesis came courtesy of my coauthor Andy Rudalevige, who forwarded me a link to documents released by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as part of the publicity tour associated with the publication of his memoirs Known and Unknown.   The partially redacted nine-page document from Rumsfeld to Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was declassified last month, and contains an assessment of the status of Iraq’s WMD (weapons of mass destruction) biological, chemical and nuclear programs. Its contents are succinctly summarized in Rumsfeld’s cover letter to Myers, which states, “Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD.  It’s big.”  As it turned out, that knowledge gap regarding WMD’s was even bigger than Rumsfeld or the intelligence community surmised.

This, of course, was not the only intelligence summary that got the Iraq WMD issue wrong – declassified portions of the National Intelligence Estimate from that period show that in the collective judgment of the U.S. intelligence agencies Iraq did possess WMD’s. In reading Bush’s own memoirs, Decision Points, it’s not clear if the uncertainty associated with these intelligence estimates was correctly conveyed to him (“Slam Dunk” anyone?)  But he was clearly blindsided by the failure to find WMD’s – just as Obama has been blindsided by the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

My point is not to defend Bush for acting on faulty intelligence, or to criticize the divisions within the Obama administration regarding how best to respond to the Egyptian crisis.  It is instead to point out something that is abundantly clear to anyone who spends even a modicum of time reviewing presidential archives pertaining to foreign policy decisions (as I have spent a good portion of the last decade doing): presidents may feel greater pressure to lead in foreign affairs, but their actual capacity to shape events in this sphere is distinctly limited – often more so than it is at home.  And, as Bush’s memoir reminds, presidents certainly don’t feel any more powerful in the international arena compared to the domestic one.  Indeed, the frustration is often greater in foreign affairs. This is in large part because, in contrast to the Wildavsky thesis, presidents are often acting on incomplete or even inaccurate information, and the foreign affairs (or national security) bureaucracy is no more monolithic or responsive to presidential direction than is its domestic counterpart.  Indeed, the notion that the president is “in charge” of the national security bureaucracy and can use that authority to act unilaterally in foreign affairs is, in my view, a dangerous perspective, in no small part because presidents quite naturally feel pressured to act on that misperception.  The end result of such unilateral efforts is often a weakening of their power base.

Already we are beginning to see an undercurrent of restlessness, especially among progressives, wondering why Obama hasn’t acted more forcefully to push Mubarak out. (Presumably they believe there is a happy medium located somewhere between toppling a ruler through invasion versus watching and waiting – but this leaves a very very large grey area for U.S. intervention).  We can’t be sure what behind-the-scenes steps Obama is taking, of course, but the complaints are a reminder that even in foreign affairs, presidents are not as powerful as we think they are or that they might wish to be.

Reagan, Obama and the Myth of the Teflon Presidency

Last Sunday marked the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth.  The anniversary occasioned numerous tributes and remembrances, most of which noted Reagan’s celebrated skills as the “Great Communicator” and his reputation for developing a “Teflon Presidency” – one that somehow escaped blame for the economic problems of the day.  That latter sobriquet was coined by Democratic Congresswoman Pat Schroeder in a 1983 speech on the House floor, when she said of then President Reagan: “He has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency: He sees to it that nothing sticks to him.” Schroeder’s exasperation was shared by many Democrats at the time, and it is a characterization that, as last Sunday’s remembrances indicates, has only grown more widespread through the intervening years.

What is the source of the Teflon-like qualities attributed to Reagan’s presidency?  In a editorial in Sunday’s USA Today, Schroeder explains: “Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him — “The Great Communicator. Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity. And his staff was brilliant in playing up his strengths. They made sure the setting for any speech perfectly captured, re-emphasized and embraced the theme of that speech. And, let’s be honest, Reagan told people what they wanted to hear.”

She concludes: “…Reagan’s incredible ability to communicate and his staff’s genius in exploiting that ability are the reasons his presidency will be sealed forever in a Teflon coat.”

Schroeder’s characterization, as Sunday’s remembrances remind, is shared by many.  It is also completely wrong.  In fact, Reagan did not escape blame for the economic recession, high unemployment and other problems that occurred on his watch. Instead, the dynamics driving changes in his popularity were largely the same as those governing approval ratings of most presidents – including Barack Obama. Note that he left office with a lower average approval rating (based on Gallup polling) than his three successors: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. That average, of course, masks tremendous variation in his month-to-month ratings, as  these Gallup Poll surveys indicate:

It is true that he left office slightly more popular than when he entered – one of the very few modern presidents who can make this claim.  But clearly his popularity was not static. Instead, we see a slow but steady decline from a peak of near 70% shortly after the failed attempt on his life early in his administration to a low of 35% in January, 1983.  Thereafter it begins a steady rise before enduring a steep, sudden decline in 1985.  That is followed by a slight recovery to a peak of 68% in May of 1986, but he suffers another decline in 1987 that brings him down to about 50%, where he remains until benefiting from the typical post-election bounce as a lame duck president.

So much for the approval numbers. What explains them?  Greatly simplified, the answer is jobs and Iran-contra.  Consider the following chart (courtesy of Jay Cost).

We see that Reagan’s net popular approval (approval minus disapproval) is almost the mirror image of the national unemployment rate – when unemployment goes up, his net approval drops.  And for most of his first term, the nation was experiencing a severe job loss, one largely induced by the Fed’s stringent monetary policies designed to wring inflation out of the economy.  The result was that by 1982 unemployment had reached record post-World War II levels, averaging 9.7%, and remaining high, at 9.6% on average through 1983.  Even though inflation dropped from a yearly average of 9.2% in 1981 to 3.8% in 1983, Reagan paid a steep political price for the job loss, despite the fact that the economic conditions were arguably driven more by the Fed’s actions than by his.  The Republican Party also suffered, losing 26 seats in the 1982 midterm elections despite raising far more money than Democrats. This was a bigger than typical midterm loss (although smaller than one might expect given the horrendous unemployment figures).  It was not until job growth began that Reagan’s approval ratings reversed course, and he cruised to reelection with a landslide victory in 1984.

The Iran-contra affair – Reagan’s ill-fated attempt to trade arms for hostages, and to funnel “residual” payments to the contras in Nicaragua – provided the second huge influence on Reagan’s popularity. When that scandal broke in 1985, Reagan suffered the greatest one-month drop in approval ever recorded for any president. Although he regained some of that support, he suffered another hit when the Democratically-controlled Congress released its summary report of the affair, which roundly criticized Reagan, in 1987.

The mistaken belief that Reagan’s presidency exhibited Teflon-like qualities is more than a misreading of history – it also contributes to a misperception regarding Obama’s popularity.  Early in his first term, when his approval ratings remained above 60% despite high unemployment, political analyst Steve Kornacki wondered whether Obama was exhibiting a Reaganesque-Teflon touch. As Obama’s approval ratings began a steady decline, however, analysts changed their tune, with many pondering why Obama had suddenly lost the communication mojo that had characterized his successful presidential campaign.  Some even suggested that the public – influenced by unusually negative news coverage – was holding Obama to a more stringent standard, in part due to his race.  After all, Reagan had also experienced high unemployment, but his approval ratings – thanks to that mystical “Teflon” – seemingly remained impervious to the bad news.

Alas, those who misread history are condemned to misuse it.  Obama – like the Great Communicator before him – has discovered that no amount of “hope and changey” rhetoric can overcome the negative political impact of persistent 9-plus unemployment.  A Teflon presidency?  That’s the wrong material.  Think Velcro instead – when problems of national magnitude occur – they stick to the President, whether justified or not.   If Obama is to make a Reagan-like political recovery, it won’t be because he suddenly rediscovers his communication skills – it will be due to a steady drop in the unemployment rate.

Guess Who’s Gaining Popularity? (It’s Not Who You Think!)

Numerous pundits have noted that President Obama’s approval ratings, after remaining stagnant through much of 2010, began slowly climbing in December.  Typically, they attribute this climb to some combination of the following factors:  public support for the compromise legislation passed by the Democratically-controlled lame-duck 111th Congress; a “rally round the flag effect” from the Tucson shooting, a slight drop in unemployment, and a slight bump from the State of the Union speech.  Here’s the composite numbers from the Pollster.com website:

Chris Weigant, writing at Pollster.com, provides a fairly typical if somewhat hyperbolic analysis of this upward trend: “For the month of January, Obama charted 48.5 percent approval — up an astonishing three full points over his previous month. At the same time, he posted a disapproval rate of only 45.7 percent — down a similarly-astonishing 2.4 points. His “undecided” numbers went down slightly from last month’s high, to 5.8 percent. For both approval and disapproval, this is the biggest positive change month-to-month Obama has ever charted. By far — his change in disapproval is almost two-and-a-half times better than his previous “best” month; and his change in approval is seven-and-a-half times as big as his previous record in this category.”

Some are even suggesting that this jump in approval represents a possible turning point in Obama’s presidency – one based in part on his “besting” of the Republicans in Congress during December’s lame duck session. Before we get too carried away, however, keep in mind that the “astonishing” jump described by Weigant is well within the margin of error of most approval surveys.

More importantly, however, the pundits’ focus on the rise in Obama’s public support threatens to overlook an even more “astonishing” change in Congress’ approval ratings, as indicated in this composite rating at Pollster.com.

If we go back to the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, Obama’s approval/disapproval ratings have gone from 48.6/45.9 to today’s 49.2/44.7 (figures from Real Politics composite polling data), a net gain in approval of almost 2%.  In that same period, however, Congress has gone from 18.7/73.7 approve/disapprove under a Democratic majority to today’s 24.4/69, a net gain in approval of just over 10% since the Republicans took over the House. (I use the RealClear Politics composite poll because it shows actual average trends by day – the Pollster.com composite poll does not.)

Does this mean Republicans have “bested” Obama?  Hardly.  Instead, it is a reminder of a point that I have made on several previous occasions: in contrast to pundits, the public does not tend to view presidential-congressional relations as a “zero-sum” game, in which a victory by one side equals a loss by the other.  Instead, they are much more interested in seeing the president and Congress work together, preferably in bipartisan fashion, to pass legislation that is in the general interest.  And that is precisely what the Democratically-controlled lame duck session of the 111th Congress did, by passing START, extending the Bush tax cuts for all income earners, and repealing DADT. This legislation, moreover, did not pass in purely partisan fashion; in contrast to health care or the stimulus bill, these bills attracted Republican support.

Note, as this Gallup poll from the first week of January shows, the increase in approval for Congress starts before the Tucson shooting or State of the Union address.

Moreover, congressional approval ratings went up among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.  In short, when Congress and the President work together, most voters – regardless of partisan leanings – approve.

Obama has been heavily criticized, particularly from those on his Left, for continuing to try to reach bipartisan agreements with congressional Republicans.  Most recently, progressives excoriated him for breaking his campaign promise and instead agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for all income earners.  But the reality is that Obama’s political instincts are sound – as the polling data indicates, voters do reward political compromise based on bipartisanship.  The difficulty is finding issues on which such compromise is possible.  Looking down the road, I see a few possibilities: energy legislation, immigration and entitlement reform are all issues on which, in theory, there is room for bipartisan agreement.  To pass legislation addressing these issues, however, will require both parties to muzzle their ideological extremes – not an easy task by any means. The evidence suggests, however, that when such compromises are made, both parties in Congress and the President benefit.