The stock market has been tanking steadily since his election, but public approval for President Barack Obama remains high. And this despite the fact that his carefully composed centrist stance during the campaign has been replaced by an economic policy that is at least as strongly liberal as FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society, if not more so.
Why don’t Americans feel more betrayed, or at least more wary? And if the economy doesn’t show strong signs of recovery, at what point will Obama be blamed and his approval rating start the long downward slide that so many other presidents (not just George W. Bush) have experienced?
Obama was the recipient of a remarkable degree of adulation during the campaign, as well as extremely high expectations, some of which he himself fostered (“A nation healed. A world repaired.”) That combination is what John McCain tried to exploit and parody, with only slight and temporary success, in his campaign ad entitled “The One.”
Some of Obama’s continuing popularity is a reflection of these initial perceptions, as well as the usual goodwill given incoming presidents. In addition, there’s the extra bump he gets from having taken on the mantle of leadership in a time of grave crisis that began on someone else’s watch. In hard times people are looking to trust leaders to guide them through it all.
Remember President Bush’s astronomical favorability ratings post-9/11? They stayed quite high and only began to drop to below 50% sometime during 2005. Until then, he was seen as successfully defending the country from a threat not of his own making, and enjoyed widespread approval. Afterwards, he was blamed for a lengthy and costly war that was considered by many Americans and the media to be discretionary and therefore unnecessary, and offensive rather than defensive.
But Bush’s lowest ratings occurred early in October of 2008, with the financial meltdown. Fairly or unfairly, Bush and the Republicans were (and still are) seen by most people as owning that crisis because it occurred on their watch. As any serious student of the history of financial regulation and subprime mortgages knows, this is a vast oversimplification of reality. But most people lack the time, the inclination, and the objectivity to attempt to study the tedious facts and evaluate them fairly. It’s hardly surprising. The truth is that the factors leading up to the financial meltdown are so complex that even so-called experts disagree wildly not only on its causes, but on its cures. It is also unsurprising that the breakdown of their opinions falls along political and party lines.
As a result, the steady decline of the markets has been matched — and perhaps exceeded — by a near-universal collapse of faith in experts, particularly of the financial variety. If the deer-in-the-headlights look of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Secretary Treasurer Henry Paulson was followed by the humbling of the once-mighty Alan Greenspan, then who could expect a whole lot more from Obama-appointee Geithner, or judge him too harshly if he fails to deliver?
Obama is therefore the beneficiary of two somewhat contradictory forces: raised expectations and goodwill towards his presidency in general, and lowered expectations of financial experts in particular. In addition, his enormous stimulus bill and the broad reach and scope of his ultra-liberal budget proposal are seen as at least being active — and therefore good — by those who think that in a crisis it is better to do something rather than nothing.
Some percentage of Obama’s supporters are so enamored of him that almost nothing he could do would change their minds. Others, who once feared he wasn’t liberal enough, have greeted his ultra-liberal approach to the recession with relief and joy. Finally, they think, a reversal of the conservative attitude toward the market that took hold in the 80s — the still-faintly-beating heart of which they hope Obama will impale with a final and definitive stake. We can hardly expect these two groups to abandon Obama at this point or at any time in the foreseeable future.
But what of the rest? That large group of Americans who tilt more towards the center and yet voted for Obama, and even those Republicans who supported him? Some are having buyer’s remorse, as witnessed in the latest mild protests of David Brooks and the tentative ruminations of Christopher Buckley. Both seem to have discovered recently, to their great surprise, that Obama is — gasp — a liberal.
That they somehow escaped that notion during the campaign is a testament to the human need to see whatever we want to see, plus the cleverness of Obama’s shape-shifting rhetoric. But even now, when Obama’s centrist mask is off, Buckley finds it difficult to turn on the man: “The strange thing is that one feels almost unpatriotic, entertaining negative thoughts about Mr. Obama’s grand plan.”
Why “unpatriotic”? Surely, respectful criticism of the acts of an American chief executive not only has a long and hallowed tradition, but if a president is engaging in a program one thinks more likely to harm the country than to help, it would be one’s patriotic duty to publicly state that fact. But I think Buckley has hit on a feeling that many people share: a sense that it would be mean-spirited to criticize a president so recently inaugurated and already so dreadfully beleaguered by crisis. The fact that Obama is young and personable as well, and talks so much about his desire to improve the plight of Americans in these hard times, makes it seem almost churlish to point out that he is following an agenda that has not withstood the test of time, nor is it consistent with his campaign persona. This would be tantamount to calling him a fool and a liar, and people who trusted and liked him are just not ready to do that yet.
Obama also continues to benefit from the fact that most people are happy this country has elected the first African-American president and truly want him to do well. They would open themselves to the old charge of racism by criticizing Obama, and no one is eager to be branded a bigot.
Never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance, either. People tend to internally defend their assumptions and actions against facts and perceptions that challenge them. For an Obama voter to turn on him now would be an acknowledgment of a failure in judgment, and that is especially threatening for most people. It would also mean there is no knowledgeable hand at the tiller of the ship of state, another thought so frightening that most people will postpone it as long as possible.
When conservatives criticize Obama by calling him a socialist, they are puzzled that most Americans don’t yet see what they perceive so clearly. But most Americans have learned to tune out such statements, seeing them as attacks borne of paranoia and akin to the dreaded McCarthyism. In addition, warnings from Republicans that Obama’s budget will cause unprecedented deficits and hurt all of us by further depressing the economy can be dismissed by Obama supporters as self-serving partisanship. And it takes a certain amount of financial sophistication to understand certain Republican arguments which may seem somewhat counterintuitive, such as how a higher tax burden on the wealthy might be likely to cause a lowering of tax revenue actually collected and a decline in productivity and employment.
Cause and effect in the economic world is notoriously difficult to prove, and arguments about it seem to go on forever. The public is not only predisposed to like Obama, but people are inclined to defend their own previous decisions. Therefore it may take a long time and a lot of hardship before many Americans connect the dots and decide to blame Obama for the financial decline that has occurred since his nomination and inauguration — and for any further worsening that might happen in the future as a result of his spending and taxing spree.
Remember that the public never turned on President Roosevelt, who remained popular despite the fact that the economy never really recovered under him until the war years. His lowest approval rating barely dipped below 50 percent. It was 48%, a figure only reached for a brief moment in 1939, after another severe market crash in 1937-8, many years after FDR had taken office and embarked on an unprecedented series of governmental interventions designed to help the stricken economy.