The Persistence of Obama Love

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 And this despite the fact that his carefully composed centrist stance during the campaign has been replaced by an economic policy that is at least as strongly liberal as FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society, if not more so.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.