In the Arena

Sky Still Falling

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Pete Wehner, who learned the art of selective fact-slinging at the feet of Karl Rove, still thinks the sky is falling on Barack Obama. He cites fellow Bush-dweller Peter Feaver–best known for suggesting that public opinion would turn on the Iraq war if the President used the word “victory” over and over again. Feaver, in turn, cites a “recent” ┬áCNN poll. Check the fine print and you’ll see the poll was taken before health care reform passed the House. A more recent Gallup poll has the public approving the President’s health care initiative 49-40. No doubt, Obama’s favorability ratings will soon surge as well.

And then, next time he tries to do something complicated, they will fall. Such are the ways of polls. Regular readers know that I mistrust all issue-polling. The public doesn’t keep track closely enough to know what it likes and doesn’t like. Indeed, it often favors opposite courses of action. The poll Feaver cites says the public opposes Obama’s handling of the deficit and also of the economy–of course, to reduce the deficit would harm the economy, and to create more jobs would increase the deficit. ┬áThe public does, however, like action…and Republicans allowed themselves to be seduced over the past six months by polls that seemed to indicate the public opposed the Obama health reform initiative when, in truth, a good slice of those opposed didn’t think the reform went far enough, and a much bigger slice was ticked off at the dilatory process rather than at the contents of the bill.

It is also interesting that Wehner, who idolizes his old boss George W. Bush for going against public opinion on the Iraq war, has become so addicted to polling since Barack Obama became President. (As regular readers know, I”m even more skeptical about the polling of issues involving war and peace.)

All of which is to say: after the health care victory, Barack Obama is now in a stronger position to enact other reforms–but his popularity could well decline if he tries to enact them. All of this will be sorted out in an event that some political scientists have been known to call an election. We will have one such in November. The President’s party usually loses seats in off-year elections, unless the President’s popularity is over 60%, as Bill Clinton’s was in 1998–when the public wanted to make clear that it supported the President over those who were in a snit over his sexual activities–and as George W. Bush’s was in 2002, after his splendid performance in response to the 9/11 attacks (and before his disastrous decision to invade Iraq). A good measuring stick for the coming election would be the 1982 elections, when Republicans lost 26 seats in the House–unemployment stood at 10.8% and Ronald Reagan’s popularity stood at 42%. If Democrats lose more than 30 seats this year, they will have suffered a significant defeat. If they lose less than 20, they will have lost ground, but not done as poorly as they might have. (I suspect, given the closely divided nature of the populace, that Democrats are at an unnaturally high level of representation in this Congress.)

It should also be remembered that two years after Reagan suffered that defeat, he won 49 states in the landslide election of 1984. Politics moves at a different speed from punditry. It is a lesson I’ve been trying to teach myself over the past few decades, not always successfully. But I’m trying.