Please, spare us the “How Obama lost his magic” columns

Let's stop pretending that the president's current middling approval numbers were anything other than inevitable

Topics: Barack Obama, War Room, 2010 Elections, Media Criticism,

Please, spare us the "How Obama lost his magic" columnsPresident Barack Obama, accompanied by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, speaks at a Recovery Act highway project in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, June 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)(Credit: AP)

For his weekly New York Times column over the weekend, Charles Blow scanned some recent polling data and concluded that President Obama’s “magic has drained away.”

He then tried to explain why, laying some blame on voters (for expecting too much) and some on Obama (for being too inflexible and “rooted in the belief that his way is the right way and in no need of alteration”). To regain his popularity, Blow advised the president to “re-evaluate the composition of his inner circle (which could use a shake-up) and the constitution of his inner self (which could use a wake-up).”

Man, oh man, do I hate these kinds of columns. Why? Because the explanation for Obama’s midterm polling slide is actually very simple: It was inevitable from the moment he was elected, and there was nothing he could have done to avoid it.

Just about every president’s popularity wanes in his second year in office; the only question is of degree. In Obama’s case, the drop was always going to be pronounced, given the enormous popularity he started out with and the gruesome economic conditions he walked into. Factor in sizable Democratic congressional majorities, which (fair or not) make it impossible for Obama to credibly blame the country’s woes on his political opponents, and you have the recipe for substantial “buyer’s remorse.” Here’s how I put it back in December 2008, before Obama even took office, in a column that advised ambitious Democrats not to run for higher office in 2010:

That brings us to 2010. On the surface, it looks like another promising year for Democrats, particularly in the Senate, where the G.O.P. will have more turf to defend—some of it in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and New Hampshire, where Democrats have had much success these past two elections. In a climate like 2008 or 2006—or even like 2000 or 1998—the stage would seem set for a strong Democratic year.

But by Election Day 2010, Democrats will have been running Washington for nearly two years. As economist Paul Krugman suggested in Monday’s New York Times, no matter what Barack Obama does in the coming months, dreadful economic news is likely for all of 2009, perhaps well into 2010. Americans have invested considerable hope in Obama—more than they have in most incoming presidents—but, amid perpetually gloomy news, this optimism will eventually give way.

Suddenly, those promising targets for Democrats might not look so inviting…



All Blow (and everyone else writing “How Obama lost his magic” columns) is doing is documenting, subgroup by subgroup, a phenomenon that was completely predictable from the very beginning. His analysis and prescriptions are useless. If Obama had spent the last year doing everything Blow now advises, his numbers would be exactly where they are right now. The only thing different would be Blow’s explanation (and his advice).

That’s because, for all the talk about whether he gave away too much on healthcare or hasn’t reacted angrily enough to the oil spill, Obama (like every president) is a prisoner to the economy. As long as the unemployment rate remains high, no amount of “magic” will restore Obama’s robust January 2009 poll numbers. (At this point, only some kind of international or terrorist incident, which might produce a rally-around-the-flag effect, could do so.)

It is absolutely not a coincidence that the basic themes of Blow’s column were also sounded by pundits in the first half of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Reagan, after all, was the last president to deal with double-digit unemployment. (His presidency also began with broad popularity, high expectations, and a souring economy — sound familiar?) At virtually this same point in his first term (August 1982), Reagan’s approval rating dipped to 41 percent. It was seen as a stunning decline for a man who had been elected in a 44-state landslide less than two years earlier. The unemployment rate when that survey was conducted was 9.8 percent, and trending upward. Today, it is 9.7 percent, with no substantial drop on the immediate horizon.

None of this is to say that Obama hasn’t made mistakes, possibly big mistakes, in his presidency. But they are not the reason why his poll numbers are where they are. Mass opinion doesn’t respond to the details of policy, no matter how important they might be. It responds to the economy. If the economy turns around, Obama’s numbers will, too. If it doesn’t, they won’t. There’s really nothing magical about it.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>