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Morning Jay: Obama's Falling Numbers, How To Read The Polls, The Jon Corzine Effect, and More!

6:30 AM, Sep 27, 2010 • By JAY COST
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1. Obama's Falling Numbers.  Barack Obama’s job approval numbers reached a new low over the weekend in the RealClearPolitics average.  Generally, I’ve seen two types of explanations for the president's decline.  One is a structural account that asserts that the president is largely a prisoner of the economy.  The other is an insider account that focuses on various messaging/tactical failures of the president, e.g his inability to “empathize.”

Morning Jay: Obama's Falling Numbers, How To Read The Polls, The Jon Corzine Effect, and More!

I think both accounts are too simple.  My take is that the president was due to be in a relatively poor political situation right now, thanks largely to the economy, but his policy choices in office have resulted in a worse position than he would otherwise have found himself.

Imagine a counter-example.  Suppose that John Kerry won the 2004 presidential election, and swept into power a Democratic Congress.  Next, suppose that the 2008 recession came just as it did in the real world, and George W. Bush did a 21st century version of Grover Cleveland, winning a broad nationwide victory that installed a strong new Republican majority in Congress.  Now, suppose that the GOP did a slap-dash job of trying to restore the economy – the reason the electorate swung to the GOP in the first place – so that they could immediately pivot to passing a Social Security “privatization” plan, a long-standing goal of economic conservatives who recognized that the economic crisis created unprecedented political opportunities.  The party used rough elbows to get a messy and unpopular version of its basic bill passed through the Congress; meanwhile, the economy continued to stagnate as their attempts to revive growth and employment were deemed by most independent observers to be terribly inefficient. 

Where would the Republicans be in the 2010 of this alternative universe?  They’d be in as bad a shape as the Democrats.  Rather than focus on doing what the voters elected them to do, they instead focused on a longstanding ideological goal of the party elite. On the other hand, if hypothetical Bush and actual Obama had focused on restoring the economy - just as Franklin Roosevelt did in the historic 73rd Congress of 1933-34 - they might still be set for losses, but I think they would have been greatly mitigated, as at least they could claim they did everything that could be done to restore the economy to health.  Similarly, if FDR had decided to pursue the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act rather than stabilizing the economy during the First New Deal, I think the Democrats would have suffered serious losses in the 1934 midterm.  Instead, FDR wisely saved those sorts of reforms for later years.

2. How To Read The Polls, Part 1 of a SeriesExamining political polling has a lot in common with buying a good piece of fruit.  You don’t just go into the grocery store and load up the cart with any old plums you find.  You take some time to examine the plums that are being offered, making sure they aren’t too ripe, bruised, etc.  Even though the plums your grocer is selling all came from the same place, some are better than others.

Ditto with political polling.  You have to be careful with the polls.  They’re all generally all right, but some are better than others.  You have to know what to look for.

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