Keeping It Simple

Journos take note: The economy drives politics

At Media Matters, Eric Boehlert has a good catch this morning: Sunday’s New York Times op-ed roundtable on how President Obama can “rebound” seems to have completely botched the set-up. The introductory text declared that a new ABC News-Washington Post poll had Obama’s approval ratings “hover[ing] just above 40 percent”; in fact, as the first question in the data set shows, the poll had approval of the president at 50 percent. That’s a significant difference. (The NYT may have been referring to the poll’s finding that 43 percent of respondents had a “great deal” or a “good amount” of confidence in Obama to “make the right decisions for the country’s future,” which got the lead in the Post’s write-up of its results.)

But the bigger problem is with the premise of the piece, and with the decision by the Times—which, contrary to some other major newspapers, often makes judicious use of its op-ed space—to set aside nearly 4,000 words so that a roster of political also-rans (Robert Shrum? Harold Ford Jr.? Gray Davis?) could engage in some “Me the People” punditry. That’s because, while there is evidence for some “modest long-term decline” in Obama’s standing with the public, as’s Charles Franklin told CJR last month, there’s also an obvious explanation for it: the economy.

Happily, after a spate of coverage last week that buried this point—or that treated a president who’s passing legislation (thanks to big majorities in Congress) but struggling politically (in the face of a dismal economy) as one of the great puzzles of the universe—there’s been some good journalism lately about this very non-mysterious phenomenon.

The most high profile example is, appropriately enough, on the Times op-ed page: it’s from Paul Krugman, who writes in today’s column:

What political scientists, as opposed to pundits, tell us is that it really is the economy, stupid. Today, Ronald Reagan is often credited with godlike political skills — but in the summer of 1982, when the U.S. economy was performing badly, his approval rating was only 42 percent.

My Princeton colleague Larry Bartels sums it up as follows: “Objective economic conditions — not clever television ads, debate performances, or the other ephemera of day-to-day campaigning — are the single most important influence upon an incumbent president’s prospects for re-election.” If the economy is improving strongly in the months before an election, incumbents do well; if it’s stagnating or retrogressing, they do badly.

This is true. Elsewhere in today’s Times, meanwhile, the reliably solid John Harwood has an item that takes up a much more consequential topic—the debate over why unemployment remains stuck at levels above what economic models predict, given the other data, and how to go about bringing them down. But in the process, he sneaks in some basic political science, writing that the jobs situation is the “biggest conundrum facing President Obama before the midterm elections,” and that:

So long as the job market remains weak, even substantial achievements like the passage of new financial regulations won’t alleviate voter discontent with the party in power.

This is also true. Finally, McClatchy’s Steven Thomma gets at least partial credit for his version of the “Why doesn’t Obama get any credit?” story, which appeared over the weekend. Thomma’s article includes some debatable assumptions, and a stat about Obama’s job approval, taken from Gallup, that doesn’t seem to correspond to the link McClatchy provides. But the piece gets the big picture stuff about what’s shaping the political environment mostly right. From the opening:

Why doesn’t he get any credit?

First, the economy remains shaky. Second, he went farther with a big-government, big-deficit approach than some voters wanted, notably independents, who’ve turned against him. Third, he broke some of his own vows in the process, such as by becoming a backroom deal-making politician to get health care, alienating young idealists.

And a little lower:

The biggest problem is that unemployment remains high and people are worried about their jobs, their paychecks and their savings.

First the economy, then substance, then (if at all) process: that’s a pretty good bullet-point summary of what to look for if you’re trying to make sense of where the president stands. Too often it’s forgotten, so it’s good to see a few journalists remembering—and writing—the obvious.

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