George W. Bush "competency" myth: Why Beltway media is dangerously confused again

Washington Post piece suggests a president's ability to "get things done" and "competency" are analogous. Nope!

Published June 6, 2014 2:26PM (EDT)

  (AP/Matt York/Reuters/Jason Reed)
(AP/Matt York/Reuters/Jason Reed)

Yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post's The Fix blog put up a post titled "On the competency question, Bush has always had Obama beat." A little while later, this same post appeared with a fresh new title: "On 'getting things done,' Bush has always had Obama beat."

There's nothing wrong with changing a headline to better reflect the argument of the post. But the content of the post remained the same, and, as with the original headline, uses public perceptions of a president's ability to "get things done" and "competency" analogously. Are they analogous? Nope. That's why we're writing a whole post in response!

The post compiles Pew data from both the W. Bush and Obama administrations on "overall approval rating" and "the percentage of people who say he can 'get things done' when he wants to." For each president, the movements in the two measures track each other in terms of broad ups and downs. Obama's approval rating and "get things done" percentage have seen their share of ups and downs; Bush's peak in mid-2003 and then effectively head straight downward for the next three years.

The Fix's point, though, is that for Bush, there was always a healthy gap between his approval rating and his "get things done" percentage: Respondents always judged his ability to "get things done" higher than they approved of his presidency. For most of Obama's presidency, on the other hand, the two measures have typically been closer -- and recently, the percentage of people who think Obama can "get things done" has actually dipped below his overall approval rating.

Even though The Fix uses polling data regarding a president's ability to "get things done" and even changed its headline to better reflect that, the piece is still littered with this word -- "competency" -- as a stand-in. "Obama's competency has long polled slightly higher than his overall approval rating -- until last year," for example. Then: "A look at Bush's presidency shows that Americans consistently rated his competency significantly higher than his overall job performance."

We're not going to argue that Obama is the most "competent" president in history and George W. Bush is the least. Neither really seems to make the Presidential All-Star team in that respect. But the question about a president's ability to "get things done" seems more an issue of how well Washington is working and the state of gridlock at any given time than about an individual president's competency.

There was a fair share of partisan battling and gridlock during Bush's time. But compared to the way it's been during most of the Obama administration? It makes the W. days look like a Golden Age of Compromise on the Potomac.

According to the Pew data, the peak of Bush's overall approval rating, "getting things done" figure, and the gap between the two was in mid-2003. And things sure were "getting done," then. We launched a fucking ground invasion of Iraq! President Bush and Congress were expanding Medicare to give old people prescription drugs, financed through deficits. A second wave of tax cuts was passing. For better or worse, the Bush administration was getting things done through a relatively cooperative Congress. By 2005-2006, though, the gap between the two measures narrows -- as in, Bush's "getting things done" figure collapses downhill more sharply than his also very sharply collapsing approval rating. (There is this one strange moment in the data, though, right around Hurricane Katrina, where Bush's approval rating instantly collapses while his "getting things done" figure briefly ticks ... upward? Huh? Points for "getting done" the instant destruction of a major American city? We can all agree that if anything represents a failure of competency, it was Bush's handling of Katrina. So if the "getting things done" figure goes up after that, the two measures can't be all that analogous.) Aside from that strange Katrina moment, though, the narrowed gap by mid-2006 could represent that Congress was no longer cooperating with him. His second-term domestic agenda, anchored by a partial-privatization of Social Security, didn't get anywhere, although the government was always properly funded and the debt ceiling was always raised on schedule.

The greatest gap between Obama's approval rating and "getting things done" figure is throughout 2010, when Democrats controlled a supermajority of Congress and were, indeed, getting things done: the passage of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and a slew of measures during the lame-duck session. Then, as you're all only too aware, a new beast known as the "Tea Party Republicans" took over control of the House of Representatives while Democrats lose their supermajority (but retained a simple majority) in the Senate. Congress entered gridlock. During the summer's debt ceiling fiasco, Obama's approval rating/"getting things done" gap all but disappears. That's because nothing gets done in gridlock. For the next couple of years, the gap remains close, before finally entering negative territory in 2013.

Bush's approval rating/"getting things done" gap, as The Fix rightly notes, never went into negative territory by this point in his presidency. The Fix's conclusion based on this is that the public always viewed President Bush as more competent than President Obama.

Instead, maybe Obama's second-term negative gap is a reflection of how his second term has been marked by the worst partisan gridlock in modern American history. If a pollster asked me about Obama's ability to get things done right now, I'd certainly give a low appraisal. He can't get anything done! And it's not that he's totally incompetent. It's because control of Congress is split between two parties that represent constituents with completely different political views, an ideology gap we've rarely, if ever, seen in our lifetimes. One in which the chasm in so wide that "negotiation" doesn't really enter into the equation. When the president and one party want X and the other party wants Anti-X, what's the compromise? Doing nothing.

P.S. To pre-but a possible response: no, waving the magic leadership! wand a few more times won't fix the problem.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Barack Obama Competency Data Editor's Picks George W. Bush Media Criticism Pew Polls Presidents The Fix