How long until Obama gets blame?

The staffing firm Robert Half Management Resources recently surveyed 150 senior executives from the nation’s 1,000 largest companies. The objective of the survey was to determine the length of time a top executive can remain unemployed during the recession before his or her career is stigmatized. The survey found that, on average, “a senior manager could be jobless for as long as nine months before their careers became adversely affected.”

In short, business managers believe that it’s the recession’s fault that a fellow manager is unemployed for up to nine months. After nine months, it’s that other fellow’s fault. This insight begs the question, “How long will it be before the Obama administration is stigmatized by the recession?” This is somewhat like the question, “How long will the Obama honeymoon last?” But I think there is a difference. The honeymoon that any politician gets is very personal and emotive, based on feeling toward an individual and his or her closest family members. I don’t think there is a honeymoon for the whole administration. The gray-suited and dour-faced members of Obama’s team of financial and economic advisers just won’t get the same love. It’s reserved for No. 44 alone.

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So how long does the administration get before the natives become restless? For a while, I have been saying that the public must see and feel improvement by September or there will be restiveness, even among Obama’s base. One might even see impatience setting in earlier. Americans are an antsy lot. Generally, we believe that the baseball manager waits too long to go to his bullpen. We want our medicine to work quicker, making the pain go away instantly. We expect the customer service center to answer our call in 37 seconds, said a survey three years ago, or we hang up. Our impatience is not necessarily a good thing, mind you. Americans are fat because we insist on eating so much “fast food” that is bad for us. But, hey, we’re in a hurry.

This topic came up at a February town hall meeting in Florida. A questioner reminded Obama of our impatience and asked how he plans to deal with it. Obama responded by saying that people must know that he won’t have all the answers, but they must also sense that he and his staff are working hard on behalf of the nation. Good enough. But then he said that people have to know that the economic mess didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be solved overnight. Eventually, he concluded that people will have to judge him by results. If the results aren’t good, then Americans will have to look for another president, he said.

Barack Obama is a great communicator. And he is very much in touch with the social psychology of American impatience. His answer underlines that. But none of that will protect his administration from our anger if the economy doesn’t pick up. Too many of us seem to forget that once upon a time we were similarly enthralled by Jimmy Carter and his folksy ways. He carried his own luggage and seemed so down to earth, like one of us. He was so smart and analytical. We loved Miss Lillian and were titillated by brother Billy and his antics. But inflation and unemployment undermined all that good will. A lingering recession could similarly undermine Obama’s personal popularity.

So how long does Obama’s economic team have to fix the economy? I think the personnel survey might hold the answer. September seems like a time for Americans to take stock of where things stand. After nine months, blaming Bush and his team will seem like scapegoating. After September, it will be Obama’s team’s fault if things aren’t picking up.



Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.