Second, when confronted with data like this, a reader’s first question should always be: Compared to what? Or, in this case, is this result different from what we’ve seen in the past? In January 2003, according to Gallup, President George W. Bush had job-approval ratings of 60 percent. But at the same point, only 41 percent of Americans thought Bush’s economic policies were “fair to all groups,” a reasonable facsimile of approval. And while the gaps were not consistent, the percentage of Americans who approved of President Bill Clinton’s job performance was regularly larger than those who wanted him to exercise more influence than congressional Republicans over the nation’s direction.
It’s always dangerous to compare polls from different sources, and those data on Clinton and Bush don’t disprove Bai’s point. But they call into question his assumption that there’s something new and unusual—something that needs explaining—about presidents who are more popular than their policy prescriptions. And if that claim isn’t true, then the poll doesn’t support Bai’s case that by spreading himself thin, Obama is squandering his popularity.
The surest sign of a flawed argument, though, is the brief “to-be-sure” passage that is more persuasive than the rest of the piece. “Some of this itinerancy,” Bai acknowledges, “must be attributed to the sheer scope of the wreckage Obama inherited. When you’ve got failing banks and corporate giants, two ongoing wars, melting icecaps and mountainous health care costs, it’s hard to see what gets pushed to the margins.”
Exactly. Obama’s trying to do a lot because he believes, as do most observers, that there’s a lot that needs to be done. With that point conceded, the rest of the column, with its search for meaning in “cultural shifts” and its analogy between policy agendas and iPod playlists, collapses.
Whatever the merits of Obama’s proposals on various issues, he seems to recognize that he faces a complex, challenging world, one in which action is required on multiple fronts. Even Bai seems to acknowledge this in his conclusion. Should Obama succeed in getting health care reform passed, he writes, challenges will keep coming: “What about carbon emissions? How about reining in Wall Street?” These are pressing questions. Doesn’t it make sense to try to answer them?