Over the last week, Barack Obama’s job approval rating has ticked up slightly, as this graph from RealClearPolitics shows:
Is this the sign of a structural improvement in the president's standing, or a consequence of the headlines tilting the marginally attached portion of the public in his direction?
It looks like the latter to me. Obama has had good press recently with the end of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya. What’s more, his team has taken up a full-blown publicity campaign, and that looks to me to have improved his numbers.
It does not look structural, which is to say that the current national climate has not improved for the president, nor has the electorate’s perception of that climate.
Regarding perception, consider this graph, again from RCP:
Such pessimism is understandable. The markets have breathed an enormous sigh of relief now that a recession seems not to be impending; however the economy as it is felt by the average American is still well within recessionary territory. Wages are stagnant, unemployment is high, and housing values are stuck at depression levels. The economic performance under Obama is arguably worse than any three-year stretch since Herbert Hoover's tenure.
So it is interesting that Obama sounds like Hoover so much lately. Three parallels stand out between the Hoover 1932 campaign and the one Obama is set to run.
First, Obama consistently deflects blame. He talks regularly of the problems he “inherited” from George W. Bush, for instance. Hoover had the same kind of argument, only he blamed Europe. In his nomination acceptance address, he asserted:
Before the storm broke we were steadily gaining in prosperity…Being prosperous, we became optimistic -- all of us. From optimism some of us went to over expansion in anticipation of the future, and from over expansion to reckless speculation…Then three years ago came retribution by the inevitable worldwide slump in consumption of goods, in prices, and employment. At that juncture it was the normal penalty for a reckless boom such as we have witnessed a score of times in our history. Through such depressions we have always passed safely after a relatively short period of losses, of hardship and adjustment. We adopted policies in the government, which were fitting to the situation. Gradually the country began to right itself. Eighteen months ago there was solid basis for hope that recovery was in sight.
Then there came to us a new calamity, a blow from abroad of such dangerous character as to strike at the very safety of the Republic. The countries of Europe proved unable to withstand the stress of the depression.
What Hoover is trying to explain away here is the economy falling off a cliff in 1932, when GDP decreased by more than 13 percent. His argument was that everything was improving (thanks to his efforts), but Europe fell over and took the United States with it. Sound familiar?
Second, Obama talks only about inputs, never about outputs. Watch for this next time he holds a press conference or some kind of public forum. Whenever somebody asks him about the unemployment rate and why it is so high, he will inevitably get back to all of the programs and initiatives he has launched to deal with the problem. That’s a deflection because, of course, the programs and initiatives clearly haven’t worked. About the only output that he can point to is “saving” GM, but the auto bailout was massively unpopular.
This is exactly the argument that Hoover made in 1932. Consider his nomination acceptance address, he argued:
If we look back over the disasters of these three years, we find that three-quarters of the population of the globe has suffered from the flames of revolution. Many nations have been subject to constant change and vacillation of government. Others have resorted to dictatorship or tyranny in desperate attempts to preserve some sort of social order…
Two courses were open. We might have done nothing. That would have been utter ruin. Instead, we met the situation with proposals to private business and the Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counter attack ever evolved in the history of the Republic. We put it into action.
Our measures have repelled these attacks of fear and panic. We have maintained the financial integrity of our government. We have cooperated to restore and stabilize the situation abroad. As a nation we have paid every dollar demanded of us. We have used the credit of the government to aid and protect our institutions, public and private. We have provided methods and assurances that there shall be none to suffer from hunger and cold. We have instituted measures to assist farmers and homeowners. We have created vast agencies for employment. Above all, we have maintained the sanctity of the principles upon which this Republic has grown great.
Team Obama has not fully deployed the third Hooveresque argument, but as Ruth Marcus noted this week, it is coming:
Forget hope and change. President Obama's re-election campaign is going to be based on fear and loathing: fear of what a Republican takeover would mean, and loathing of whomever the Republican nominee turns out to be.
Exactly. Whomever the GOP nominates will be castigated as a soulless devil that will destroy the Republic itself.
Hoover offered a version of this in 1932. He argued that voting in FDR would destroy the American way of life:
We are told by the opposition that we must have a change, that we must have a new deal. It is not the change that comes from normal development of national life to which I object, but the proposal to alter the whole foundations of our national life which have been builded through generations of testing and struggle, and of the principles upon which we have builded the nation….
Our people should consider the primary facts before they come to the judgment—not merely through political agitation, the glitter of promise, and the discouragement of temporary hardships—whether they will support changes, which radically affect the whole system, which has been builded up by a hundred and fifty years of the toil of the fathers. They should not approach the question in the despair with which our opponents would clothe it.
Obviously, all of this amounts to an incredibly weak reelection strategy. But what else does President Obama have to run on? The macroeconomic climate is terrible, and unlikely to improve enough to make things feel better for average people. The debt has gone through the roof. The health care bill, his chief domestic achievement, remains massively unpopular.
What else can he do, but deflect blame, tout the things he’s done (not their effectiveness), and castigate the GOP as the party of anti-American radicals?