« could a college education prevent Wall Street greed? | Main | Youth turnout was 15% in the Massachusetts Senate election »

January 19, 2010

what's happening to the Democrats?

Q. Why are the Democrats losing popularity in national surveys?
A. The answer to that one seems pretty straightforward. There is an eerily close correlation between unemployment and presidential approval during recessions. John Judis provides the graphs for Reagan and Clinton; Obama's pattern is just the same so far:

Q. What should the Democrats do about unemployment?
They should do whatever they can, mainly because losing your job is a terrible thing, but also because the Democrats' political fate is tied to the unemployment rate. What they have done so far is the stimulus package, the auto bailout, and extending unemployment benefits. It's clear that the public doesn't give them credit for these steps--understandably, since unemployment is still at 10%. Probably the stimulus should have been bigger, but I have my doubts that the federal government could have spent more money faster without making major mistakes.

Q. What about the narrative?
Paul Krugman, E.J. Dionne, and Kevin Drum all agree that the Democrats' problem is not declining popularity. That's inevitable, given the economic picture. Their problem is a failure to control the interpretation, the public's grand "narrative" about what is going on. Dionne writes:

Narratives do not determine electoral results, which can be forecast precisely based on economic indicators. Narratives do influence which policies the governing party attempts. Bill Clinton felt much more constrained than L.B.J. because the national storyline had shifted between 1964 and 1992--in part due to Ronald Reagan.

But I am not at all sure that Reagan controlled the narrative better in 1980-1982 than Obama is today. While Reagan's popularity was sinking toward 40%, I don't think most Americans were buying his claim that liberals had wrecked the economy with their taxes and spending, and he was saving it with his tax cuts (and spending). They were more likely to think that a mean Republican was putting people out of work. Reagan won the narrative in 1984 for a simple reason: the economy had recovered strongly, and he was the president at the time. Obama is making the progressive case today, much as Reagan argued for conservatism. People don't believe Obama, because unemployment is 10%. I don't think they believed Reagan when the situation was equally dire in 1981-2. Once again, everything depends on recovery.

Q. What about the left's revolt against Obama?
It certainly does not surprise me that people to the left of Barack Obama are dissatisfied with his record so far--that was to be expected, given their expectations. I do think their level of anger is surprising and damages their own cause. Here, in the academia-dominated, liberal, affluent Western suburbs of Boston, I hear constant griping about the president, and some of the reasons seem to me downright mistaken. For example, the public option in the health care bill was almost pure symbolism; using it as a bargaining chip was smart--not a betrayal. The national decline in the president's overall popularity is a function of economic conditions. For the Democrats to lose steam in Cambridge and Brookline seems unnecessary and harmful. I blame my neighbors for that, not the White House.

January 19, 2010 8:24 AM | category: none



Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

Site Meter