Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Obama's Very Long Leash

Josh Marshall gets at a key point concerning the Obama presidency in his comments on last night's press conference.
One thing that was clear from tonight's press conference was why the White House keeps wanting to get Obama out in front of the cameras and on TV. Obama has a ready and mainly unflappable command of the issues confronting the country, which I think people find reassuring in itself. In a climate of crisis such as this, I don't think most people's focus is ideological. They're looking for competence and command, a sense that someone is sailing the ship, at helm with a clear sense of where they're going.
By "people," Marshall means all the constituencies who are not committed conservative. He's referring here primarily to white moderates and independents but also to progressives, African-Americans, hispanics, and gay people. Depending on how one counts, these constituencies add up to anywhere between 2/3rds and 4/5ths of the whole voting population and Marshall is right that these groups are going to evaluate Obama primarily on whether he appears to be serious, competent, and moving forward--the extent to which he avoids appearing to be a Bush-like caricature of himself representing the worst of American society.

Given that appearing to have "competence and command" is something that Barack Obama is very good at doing (and that's much of the reason he was elected), he's on a very long leash as president. In my opinion, Obama's general approval ratings and level of public support are going to stay high for at least the next five or six years. Even if the most recent bank bailout doesn't work, Obama's going to get the benefit of the doubt for taking a serious approach based on the best advice he could get from "the experts." Marshall is right in noticing that public opinion is not ideological on the bailout. That's partly because public opinion isn't sure about it's own idea of the "right approach." Consequently, the public could be willing to continue supporting Obama even if the "public/private partnership" idea doesn't pan out. As long as Obama is not making a fool of himself in the process, he's okay.

The Republicans and the conservative movement don't understand this yet, but they are a very big part of the public opinion dynamic that gives Obama such a long leash. George Bush's approval ratings were in the 20's and low 30's because his administration and the Republican Party largely perceived as a bunch of buffoons whose incompetence and corruption led the country to disaster. The most common term used for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and the other prominent Republican figures from the Bush years is "idiot." What's happened since Obama's inauguration is that the higher profiles of figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Steele, Michele Bachmann, and Jim Bunning have reinforced the whole buffoonish aura of the Republican Party that was created by the Bush administration. That's made Obama even more appealing by way of contrast and done a great deal to lock in the idea that Obama as a figure of "seriousness and competence."

Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, and Jim Bunning were all in the news yesterday making themselves and the Republican Party look more absurd than any comedian could make them look. Limbaugh was cartoonishly racist, Bachmann was cartoonishly "radical," and Bunning was doing a great impersonation of a stereotypically bitter, bullying right-winger who nobody in their right mind would vote for. Every time these people are in the news, they make Barack Obama look very good by way of comparison and keep giving the Obama administration a longer lease on popularity and credibility.

Given the public mood and the ridiculousness of the Republican opposition, I'd say that the Obama administration is on a very long leash indeed.

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