Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

When Economies Suffer, So Do Presidents

Barack Obama is in trouble because he's lost the magic that got him elected, we are told. The "passion and myth" that Obama summoned so powerfully during his campaign "are sorely missing from his presidency," writes Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. "Obama can connect with policy. He just can't connect with the objects of policy. Empathy seems more like an abstract concept than something to practice." Countless pundits and spin doctors have made this argument. It's so conventional it's often mentioned with a shrug, as if it's too obvious to merit further discussion. Which is a shame. Because it's wrong. Blatantly wrong. It tells us nothing about politics. But it is worth discussing -- because it says a great deal about how pundits and spin doctors think. One fact towers over all others in American politics today. It is unemployment. At nearly 10 per cent, unemployment is almost as high as it has ever been since the Second World War. But even that figure doesn't tell the full story because it excludes the underemployed and those who have given up looking for work. Worse, a large and growing portion of the unemployed have been without jobs for six months or longer. Most people can weather a brief bout of unemployment without too much trouble. But long-term unemployment is devastating. And long-term unemployment is higher than it has ever been in the post-war era. Millions more Americans who haven't lost their jobs worry they will. Or they worry about hanging on to their homes: Almost one-quarter of mortgage-holders owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth and foreclosures are at record levels. For all these very good reasons, Americans are in a funk. And if you're the man everyone holds responsible for the state of the country, you're going to be pretty unpopular. It doesn't matter whether you really are responsible. It doesn't matter if you're doing all that can be done. People will not give you a big thumbs up. And so Barack Obama's approval rating has slumped like a front porch on an abandoned house. In the most recent Gallup poll, it was 46 per cent. Republican gains in the Congressional elections next month are all but certain. The pundits and spin doctors acknowledge the awful state of the economy and what it does to the president's approval rating. But Obama could be doing better, they insist. If he connected with people. If he emoted. "Obama's bloodless rationality has helped spawn the right's bloodletting of irrationality," claims Maureen Dowd. "Worried voters want a sympathetic father figure in the Oval Office at times of crisis, not Dr. Cool," communications consultant Robin Sears writes in the latest issue of Policy Options. Who could play that role? Bill Clinton, say many pundits, including Time magazine's Mark Halperin. But Sears would prefer to cast Ronald Reagan. The Great Communicator knew the secret of connecting with a story: heavy on the schmaltz. "The best story wins, the best teller of stories wins, and the best stories contain tears and triumph, sometimes in maudlin quantity," Sears writes. Personally, I can do without maudlin. I prefer a Dr. Cool in the White House. And I am positively delighted that, at this difficult time, the president is not the twitching bag of impulses and outbursts known as John McCain. See what I did there? I looked at the issue through the lens of my own feelings and inclinations. Pundits do that all the time. But they don't say, hey, this is just how I feel. Instead, they conflate what they feel with what the public feels. So Tom Friedman of the New York Times says Obama could make America fall in love with him again if only he would implement a list of policies which just happens to be a list of policies near-and-dear to Tom Friedman. And Maureen Dowd says Obama could turn things around if only he would flash that dazzling smile and conjure a little of the oratorical magic she pines for. What pundits do not do is look carefully at data. Here are two numbers: 46 per cent and 42 per cent. The first of those numbers is, as I mentioned earlier, Obama's approval rating according to the latest Gallup Poll. The second is the approval rating of both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan at precisely the same point in their first terms in office. Got that? Barack Obama is slightly more popular than either Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan were this far into their presidencies. In October 1982, Ronald Reagan was as sympathetic and fatherly as ever. But it didn't matter. The U.S. was staggering out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Republicans were hammered in the November elections. The Great Communicator's approval rating kept falling. It bottomed out at 35 per cent in January 1983. In October 1994, the U.S. was well on its way to a spectacular recovery from recession but the mood was still gloomy and Clinton's legendary speeches could do nothing about it. In November, the Democrats suffered one of their worst losses ever. Clinton looked so sure to lose the 1996 presidential election that speculation started to swirl of a challenge for the Democratic nomination. Pundits and spin doctors are in the communications business and, not surprisingly, they're obsessed with the fundamentals of communication -- images, stories, and feelings. But the reality couldn't be clearer: When economies suffer, so do presidents. It's an iron law. Not even two of the most gifted politicians of the last century could evade it. Reagan and Clinton survived, of course, thanks to fortuitously timed economical revivals. Will Obama also survive? It's the economy that will answer that question. Not the president's demeanour. Not the speeches. It's the economy, stupid.