Mad Men

Post doesn't parse the practical political consequences of public anger

Everybody’s angry over the AIG bonus scandal. You’re angry, I’m angry, Congress is angry. Inuit fishermen who have no contact with the rest of North America are angry.

But what, you might wonder, are the practical political consequences of that anger? How will it affect, if at all, our government’s response to the many challenges we now face? That’s a somewhat more complicated question—the sort of question we expect the press to answer.

Yesterday, Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane of The Washington Post took a stab at addressing it in a story headlined “Anger Over Firm Depletes Obama’s Political Capital.” The article’s lede was admirably clear and declarative: “President Obama’s apparent inability to block executive bonuses at insurance giant AIG has dealt a sharp blow to his young administration and is threatening to derail both public and congressional support for his ambitious political agenda.” (Just to drive the point home, the Web version of the story was accompanied by a superscript: “An imperiled agenda.”)

The story’s core claim is tripartite: First, people are angry about the AIG bonuses; second, because of his apparent inability to stop the bonuses, some portion of that anger is increasingly directed at Obama; third, as a consequence, Obama’s “ambitious political agenda” is becoming “imperiled.” Or, as the article puts it in a graf near the conclusion, “reports about the latest AIG bonuses quickly undermined whatever political capital Obama has earned with his past efforts.”

The problem, though, is that the authors never really try to prove the second and third parts of that claim—you know, the interesting stuff about the practical political consequences of public anger. After that lede about faltering “public and congressional support,” we get lots of detailed information about Congress, including quotes from Chris Dodd and John Boehner, and lots of vague claims about the public: “populist anger,” a “sense of disbelief,” riled “sentiment on Main Street,” a “skeptical public.” It’s argument by assertion, not evidence.

In part, this shortcoming points to the difficulties inherent in writing about public opinion. Any individual person’s thoughts, however interesting or seemingly representative they may be, are, well, just some guy’s thoughts. And polls, while much better, aren’t perfect either, in part due to methodological inconsistencies and in part because they take time to conduct well—more time than news cycles generally allow.

But those difficulties should make reporters more cautious, not more reckless, when writing about public opinion and its consequences. And using the press as a proxy for the public, as Shear and Kane do in describing White House press secretary Robert Gibbs being “peppered” with questions by the media to create the image of an administration under siege, doesn’t bridge this gap.

Actually, there is recent some polling data that shows Obama’s popularity waning. Though Shear and Kane didn’t use it, Dana Milbank did, to good effect, while making a similar argument in his column on the same day.

But a closer look at the data presents a more ambiguous picture. For one thing, Obama’s overall approval numbers were bound to come down from their stratospheric heights, as Republicans remembered that they don’t like liberal Democrats. For another, they still compare favorably to his immediate predecessors’ numbers, despite the dismal economy. And while there is real (and warranted) concern about the president’s handling of the banks, support for the rest of his “ambitious political agenda” remains pretty strong. It’s possible that, in the days to come, new data will appear that supports the Post’s claims. But if it exists now, the paper hasn’t presented it.

Even this number-parsing, though, has real limits, because it’s not clear how closely “political capital”—one of the central conceits of the Post story—is affected by the public’s views on any particular subject, or, for that matter, how public opinion two years out from the next election practically affects the president’s ability to get things done.

As the Post tells it, anger over the AIG bonuses leads to less support for the rest of Obama’s agenda. Here’s an alternate interpretation: the government we have now is the government we’ll have for the next twenty months, and everybody in office knows it. In that time, Obama will have begun to succeed or fail, and the results of the next election will play out accordingly. So when politicians invoke the specter of public anger today to push back against Obama’s agenda, they’re reaching for a tool to advance their own interests. And “political capital” doesn’t come from short-term swings in public opinion—it comes from having sixty senators who support your agenda (or fifty-one, if you can employ the budget-reconciliation process to your advantage).

As for a press that obscures that story in favor of a vague narrative? Just another thing to be angry about.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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