Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings

BOSTON - JANUARY 17:  U.S President Barack Oba...

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There seems to be some confusion among Barack Obama supporters about why he is less popular now than he was upon winning Election 2008. As someone who wanted him to win that election (I didn’t vote, but only because I never got my CA absentee ballot) but disapproves of his tenure so far, I can at least articulate my own reasoning.

I thought that the Iraq War, the torture of detainees in the War on Terror, the GOP’s unnecessarily bellicose foreign policy rhetoric, and the notion that Governor Sarah Palin is a qualified occupant of the White House all needed to be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Thus it made sense to support candidate Obama despite disagreeing with much of his domestic agenda.

Since I’ve long thought that President Obama is a temperamentally cautious pragmatist who conforms to existing power structures rather than challenging them, I never bought the rhetoric about “change you can believe in,” but it is nevertheless disappointing to watch a candidate who campaigned against the pernicious influence of special interests submit so utterly to them. Perhaps the financial crisis demanded bailouts and a stimulus package, but it surely also called for prudent structural reforms. I’m utterly unconvinced that those are a priority for the current administration, though I am eager to be proved wrong.

On health care, I don’t object to helping more folks to get insurance — indeed I think that improving the health care system for the worst off among us is worth doing even if it’s all that we do, and I’d happily sign on to this more ambitious plan if we lived in a world sane enough to offer it up as an option. Instead I’m asked to support a plan rife with giveaways for insurance companies, exemptions for unions, lots of dough for a single Midwestern state, and a double-down on the deeply dysfunctional employer based system. I’d prefer piecemeal reform to a massive restructuring that combines the uncertainty of sweeping legislation with preserving most of the status quo’s worst features.

I’m a great fan of Kevin Drum’s blog. His position on health care is defensible enough: a) major legislation that covers lots of presently uninsured people is a good idea; b) getting it through Congress requires holding our noses at the kinds of bribes and giveaways to special interests that are prerequisites for moving big legislation. c) The benefits are here worth the cost. Indeed I cannot entirely fault Congress for approaching major legislation in that fashion. There are powerful structural incentives for them to do so.

On the campaign trail, however, Obama didn’t campaign as an establishment pragmatist. He didn’t say, “Health care reform is important, so I’ll hold my nose, cut deals with a lot of special interests, and get more Americans covered in a very imperfect way.” Nor did he try to communicate that message in more politically palatable language. Instead he made being a change agent the foundation of his appeal. He talked, as they all do, about a broken system in Washington DC, noting that issues like health care reform were too important to be addressed in the same old way. Again, I didn’t particularly believe any of this, but having my cynicism justified isn’t winning President Obama any points.

Perhaps a down economy is the biggest reason that President Obama’s numbers are down, but I cannot help but wonder if his slip isn’t also due to a lie at the heart of his campaign. This man is calculating politico, as comfortable as anyone we’ve got at navigating Washington DC as it exists today. It’s a style of leadership that is perfectly defensible. But he sold himself as an idealistic agent of change whose special contribution would be fixing a broken status quo.

When you’re talking approval ratings, overall impressions like this one are far more important than most specific issues, and Obama supporters who took the man’s rhetoric seriously have reason to feel misled on everything from Gitmo to gay rights to bank bailouts to health care deals cut with industry players to courting special interests generally. That they’d still prefer him to McCain/Palin, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck eventually begins to register as damning with the faint praise that it is. Obama defenders are perfectly within their rights to point out that sane alternatives to the president’s agenda haven’t many GOP champions. But let’s raise the bar a bit. Is there anything President Obama has accomplished that we couldn’t have expected from a President George H.W. Bush or a Bill Clinton?

Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings.

So it goes.

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7 Responses to “Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings”

  1. libtree09 Says:

    I agree…what the country…as in the regular citizen…is a FDR or Teddy Roosevelt…I read somewhere that Obama argued against using the change slogan…now we know why. He admires Reagan and Clinton…both smoke and mirror artists.

  2. Tweets that mention Exceptional rhetoric + mediocre performance = falling approval ratings. - Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog - True/Slant -- Topsy.com Says:

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  3. scottchaffee Says:

    I am almost embarrassed to say, that while wary of Obama’s campaign promises, I felt that Obama was sincere in his belief that fundamental change needed to occur. I tend to agree with some insiders who see Obama as surprisingly naive regarding the realities of corporate dominance and republican resolve. Like many true believers, Obama suffers under the supposition that offered the chance, and upon stark demonstration that their ideology is bankrupt, corrupt politicians/officials and their corporate handlers will see the light. He has squandered much of his first year by playing good cop or patient parent. Instead he has been not much more than an enabler and a disappointment to the grassroots dems and progressives who were expecting a full throated leader as opposed to an incarnation of the Dalai Lama.

  4. sinestar Says:

    No offense intended, you do a great job of stating the obvious.

  5. rufnnuts Says:

    Or it could be due to a population of idiots and amnesiacs that expected the depression to end with the election of a president.

    I was impressed with Obama’s oratory skills, but I’m smart enough to always keep in mind when he speaks – there is a politician making the sounds.

  6. doctorfunk Says:

    I’m probably not representative, but from my perspective, caution and pragmatism ARE a massive change from the preceding era. At least the president has some relationship with reality again.

    I can understand being disappointed with the pace of progress, or disagreeing on some points of policy. But is Obama not fighting to change the status quo? Or is the status quo fighting very hard to stay broken?

  7. Jil Wrinkle Says:

    I disagree with this post, Conor. You seem to be disgruntled because (a) Congress has passed and is attempting to pass legislation in a manner less genial than Obama seemed to embrace when he was a candidate; (b) Obama is no longer giving off the perpetual kumba-ya vibe that he campaigned with now that he is getting down to the day-to-day business of running the country.

    You call it a big lie: for Obama to offer up on the campaign the game-changing rhetoric that has gotten lost in the hectic shuffle of just trying to get stuff done… but that’s not fair. Obama couldn’t come into Washington and play Calvinball with the DC Political Game. You’re being unreasonable. At least give (a) some examples of how Obama is acting like a “calculating politico” and, more importantly (b) suggest an alternative approach… even in the most general sense.

    Obama campaigned on getting X, Y, and Z done. You’re right: That’s all he menionted. It was only when he told Congress to go out and get X, Y, and Z done that things changed: By the time Congress got done with them, X, Y, and Z had become “X1dsa” and “Ys3d9” and “Z4d21″… but you can’t make that Obama’s fault.

    Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, I’m with Andrew Sullivan: Obama campaigned on X, Y, and Z, and he has been trying to deliver X, Y, and Z as close to the manner in which he promised it. Where you see failed expectations, I see honest attempts.

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