Hacky Punditry at the WSJ

Noonan says Dems don’t ‘love’ Obama. But they seem to like him pretty well.

Given much of the media’s determination to see politics primarily as a stage upon which the president struts and frets, it’s no surprise that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s press conference on the oil spill Thursday, there’s a bunch of mostly overwrought writing today on what it all means for his administration.

Andrew Sullivan has found what’s probably the most untethered example in a major outlet—Peggy Noonan’s contribution to The Wall Street Journal—and done a good job of demolishing it. But to dwell a moment more on just one of the points Sullivan raises, Noonan writes:

What continues to fascinate me is Mr. Obama’s standing with Democrats. They don’t love him. Half the party voted for Hillary Clinton, and her people have never fully reconciled themselves to him. But he is what they have. They are invested in him. In time—after the 2010 elections go badly—they are going to start to peel off. The political operative James Carville, the most vocal and influential of the president’s Gulf critics, signaled to Democrats this week that they can start to peel off. He did it through the passion of his denunciations.

Where to start? First of all, the premise is weak. The fact that many Democratic voters went for Clinton during the primary campaign does not mean they did not like Obama. There were plenty of indications that most Democrats liked both candidates, and that the “Puma” storyline (remember that?) was overblown.

But fortunately, we don’t have to rely on inference or anecdote or our already-hazy memories of 2008. You can go to Google, type in “obama approval rating among democrats,” click on the second link and find:

That appears under the headline “Obama’s Approval Most Polarized for First-Year President.” It can only be historically polarized, of course, if one group of people—like, say, people who identify as members of his party—really like him.

Of course, that chart only covers Obama’s first year, and it’s only from one pollster. Better data would be more up-to-date—including surveys done since the oil spill became a major story—and would draw from a variety of sources. Fortunately, that’s on the Internet too! Just go over to Pollster.com’s data-rich, user-friendly site, click through to the chart for Obama’s approval among Democrats, and you’ll see this:

Looks like he’s still pretty popular.

Now, it’s worth recognizing the limits of our knowledge. All these charts show is that, when asked whether they “approve” or “disapprove” of Obama’s job performance, the vast, vast majority of Democrats choose “approve.”

It may be the case, as Noonan claims, that in truth they don’t “love” Obama, that they are itching for a chance to ditch him, that they are really waiting for direction from James Carville. And it may be the case that she used her extraordinary telepathic powers to divine the innermost thoughts and feelings of these Democrats—the very same telepathic powers that gave her the insight she needed to write the sentence, “The unspoken mantra in [Obama’s] head must have been, ‘I will not be defensive, I will not give them a resentful sound bite.’”

On the other hand, it may be the case that Noonan is engaging in classic pundit hackwork by pretending that she knows what other people are thinking, assuming that her political fetishes are widely shared, and ignoring the readily available data that disproves her assertions. It’s so hard to tell…

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.