By Mark S. Mellman - 03/10/10 12:08 AM EST
The press purports to explain the problems. “Why The President’s Men Stumble,” a New York Times headline promised to explain.
Another lede concluded that the president’s “once-dazzling political momentum … has stalled.”
A noted columnist captured the pack’s mood: “the Washington press corps is suddenly in hot pursuit of ‘an administration in disarray,’ which is coming apart at the seams under … a ‘detached President.’ ”
The distinguished dean of Washington columnists opined, “it is becoming increasingly clear” that the president’s marvel “was a one-year phenomenon … what has been occurring since is an accelerating retreat … a process in which he is more spectator than leader.”
None of these words was written about President Barack Obama or his administration, however. Rather they were composed to describe the declining fortunes of Ronald Reagan in the election season of 1982, during which his party lost 26 House seats, before he went on to win 49 states and reelection.
However, in the season of national discontent, from mid-1982 through early 1983, the Great Communicator’s approval ratings sank below 40 percent, far under Obama’s latest Gallup reading.
With both men’s declining ratings, what had appeared as unique talents were judged ill-suited for the times; once-super-human staffs were derided for their failings. Nearly every aspect of what began with great promise — at least for each man’s partisans — appeared to be disintegrating.
In truth, the world was not coming to an end for Ronald Reagan, nor is it for Barack Obama.
The two suffer from the same syndrome, however. Reagan’s approval ratings, like Obama’s, were driven down by recession — and declining approval ratings unravel the reigning political order.
Presidential scholar Richard Neustadt long ago recognized that a president’s greatest power is the power to persuade and his most potent weapon is his approval rating. In politics, as in many aspects of life, popular people are more persuasive. Wrapped up in presidential approval ratings are fear and awe, respect and affection.
Members of Congress are at once fearful of crossing a popular president, awed by the pomp, respectful of the office and anxious to be loved by someone so important.
Commentators are more likely to see every move made by popular presidents as shrewd. After all, presidents demonstrate their wisdom to reporters by convincing voters to like them.
By contrast, every wart becomes visible on an unpopular president. Congress becomes more recalcitrant, afraid the president’s fate is an infectious disease to which they might succumb if they get too close. Moreover, the message is obviously off, because it is not working. If the message were right, the president’s ratings would not have fallen in the first place. Someone is to blame for the “failure,” and staff naturally bears the brunt.
Strikingly overlooked is the fact that Ronald Reagan was the same fellow when he was defeating an incumbent president or winning 49 states as he was when he was losing 26 House seats. His staff was no more or less competent. Barack Obama’s considerable talents, and those of his staff, have not dissipated in the past year.
What changed for both Reagan and Obama was the drop in their approval ratings. And in both instances, that decline had more to do with economic conditions beyond their control than with any communications failure or legislative defeat.
It all comes down to a concept we have discussed before: fundamental attribution error — the natural tendency to weight the personal more highly than the situational in attributing causality. The objective situation Obama and Reagan faced did vastly more to dictate public attitudes than any personal or strategic failings.
For Reagan, the situation changed dramatically before he faced voters again. President Obama is likely to follow a similar trajectory — and today’s laments will turn to paeans of praise.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.