Wednesday, April 29, 2009
As Barack Obama’s administration reaches the 100-day mark, partisans and ideologues on both sides are spinning furiously to define what has happened so far and what it means going forward.
Republicans and conservatives try to paint a portrait of declining support and weakness. Democrats and liberals see a president with unrivaled popularity and power. Both assessments are wrong.
As the president concludes his first 100 days in office, his ratings are about where you’d expect them to be: Democrats are strongly supportive, Republicans are strongly opposed, and those not affiliated with either political party are in between. Those on the fence give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and those with doubts hope they’re wrong.
This reality exists not because Obama is a polarizing president but because he is president of a politically polarized nation. If Republicans thought the sky was blue, Democrats would disagree. If Democrats liked morning, Republicans would say the afternoon is better. Most expect the nation’s politics to become even more partisan over the coming year.
Politically, we have become a sports bar nation with partisans cheering for their team in much the same way they cheer for the Yankees or the Red Sox. If an umpire’s call or a pundit’s analysis helps one side, that team’s fans will hail the brilliance of the call or analysis. The other side will whine about its unfairness and question the credibility or integrity of the person making the call. Both sides know the talking points, and both sides are willing to switch their interpretation of the rules whenever it helps the home team.
Some believe that fan support helps sports teams win championships, and others believe that political teams respond to voters. Many simply enjoy politics for the sport of it all while others are frustrated by what they see as a system that is rigged to benefit the insiders.
For a very brief moment, it looked like things might possibly be different with Obama. The president’s team ran a nearly flawless transition process allowing him to enjoy stunningly high approval ratings on Inauguration Day. But within a few weeks, the president’s approval ratings returned to earth amidst highly partisan debates over an economic stimulus plan and a $3.6 trillion budget. The decline was primarily the result of Republicans and a few independents shifting their views from neutral to disapproval.
However, it’s important to note that the president’s numbers stopped declining by early March. For nearly two months, Obama’s job approval rating has remained very stable with a solid level of support—solid, but not spectacular.
An analysis of Gallup data going back to the Eisenhower administration shows that Obama’s 100-day ratings fit right in the middle of the ratings for the 10 presidents who came before him. Still, he’s now doing just a bit better than his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, after their first 100 days in office.
The real issue is not where this president’s ratings stand at the 100-day mark. It’s where do we go from here as a nation. As much as the political media likes to believe that everything revolves around the people and personalities in Washington, D.C., it’s what happens everywhere else that really matters.
The president has set for himself a task of giving the government a more central role in the United States of America. Some hope - and others fear - that he is the just the person to reverse the public philosophy of the Reagan era. That’s an enormous challenge, and it remains far from clear that he can convince the American people to buy into his paradigm-shifting vision of government.
At the start of the Obama era, most Americans still shared Ronald Reagan’s view that government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.
In other words, while most voters like Obama, they still have doubts about the government he leads. After declining for months, concern has started to grow again that the government will do too much in response to the nation’s economic crisis. The number who believe that free-market economies are better than government-managed economies has grown in recent months, and most Americans continue to believe that tax cuts are good for the economy.
For those who dismiss the importance of tax cuts, it’s telling to see how much the new administration keeps talking about their initial round of tax cuts. The promise to cut taxes for 95% of Americans was a core commitment of the Obama campaign and delivering tax cuts was the only way to build support for the stimulus plan. But today more voters expect tax hikes rather than tax cuts from the Obama administration.
As the new administration grapples with the complexities of 21st Century America, the president’s own actions will be just one of many variables impacting his personal ratings and support for his agenda.
One key factor largely beyond Obama’s control is the behavior of the economy. As noted yesterday, if the economy does improve over the coming year or two, it’s likely to help the president’s job approval ratings. But if the sense of crisis diminishes, it may harm the president’s agenda by sapping some of the desire for major new government initiatives.
Another factor going forward will be how well Obama’s policies actually work. For example, right now there is a huge debate about if and how health care reform might get through Congress. That’s a great debate for D.C. insiders with huge implications for the nation. What if Congress and the president actually pass some kind of reform?
The initial public response will almost certainly be positive, but the longer-term response will be based upon the reality of how the reform performs. What if, for example, health care reform is passed, and nobody notices any difference? What if people remain frustrated with the day-to-day realities of our health care system? The answer at the moment? No one knows.
Through it all, the president himself will have one huge factor working in his favor, and that’s the current state of the Republican Party. Republicans, particularly D.C. Republicans, are lost in the wilderness. Until that changes, the president is likely to enjoy solid approval ratings, and his popularity will benefit other members of his party.
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