Early in the 2008 presidential cycle, I followed then ex-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner around a Las Vegas casino. He kept saying phrases like “Transformative change as opposed to incremental change.” It was at about that moment that I decided the adjective “transformative” does not mean anything in politics. It only sounds like it means something. In fact, it is often a warning sign, like when a politician says “Honestly…” before a sentence. Something is up. Change is change. “Transformative” is the political rhetorical equivalent of the word “very,” which all high school composition students learn sooner or later doesn’t do a thing to a sentence. (The sunset is pretty, or it is not pretty, for example. It does not help to say the sunset is “very pretty.”) It is usually meant to distract you from the fact that there is not so much meaning underneath.
Warner, of course, flamed out as a presidential candidate and became a Virginia senator. Barack Obama, however, who hired one of Warner’s speechwriters, the talented Ben Rhodes, and perhaps read the same linguistic focus group data, began adopting the “transformative” adjective. By the time he was elected, the “transformative” word was everywhere. And certainly, Obama’s election, as a black man, as a man with a funny name, as a young man, as a mostly liberal Democrat, represented far more “change” than John McCain’s election. But was it “transformative”–assuming that word even has a meaning that can be identified? Not so much, according to Politico’s Ben Smith, who gives us a (um, very) good analysis of the president’s poll numbers today.
A slew of recent polls showing President Barack Obama’s job approval ratings at essentially normal levels and a partisan divide reasserting itself suggest that the political landscape was not as dramatically transformed last November as Democrats had hoped.
The question now is whether those numbers will impede the president’s ability to achieve the transformative goals he set out for himself, particularly in the area of health care, where members of Congress crucial to his success may feel they have to respond to shifting public opinion.
After months of showing sky-high job approval ratings, polls from major newspapers and from the Pew and Gallup organizations this week gave Obama the lowest numbers of his presidency. He is less popular than either George W. Bush or George H.W. Bush at this point in their presidencies, though more popular than Bill Clinton was after seven months in office.
Obama’s level of support now neatly matches the number of voters who elected him — with 52 percent of Americans approving of his job performance, while 42 percent disapprove, according to an average of major surveys.
I think that’s right. My only critique: I think Smith’s second paragraph would have been more to the point if he had just written, “The question now is whether those numbers will impede the president’s ability to achieve the goals he set out for himself.” Change is still possible, in other words. Tranformative change? Bleh.