Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reagan Wasn't Reagan, Either

John Sides has been posting great pieces this week, none better than this one.  He argues that all of the attempts to blame various mistakes, and especially public relations failures, for Obama's (relatively) low approval ratings, or the MA Senate results, or the Democrats' general lack of popularity, are all misguided.  Obama is about as popular as one would expect based on the economy and other structural reasons, John reminds everyone. 

Indeed, as he points out, Obama is exactly where Ronald Reagan was in January, 1982.

But people don't want to listen to that; they argue that, well, yes, Reagan was temporarily unpopular, but at least he communicated the important (to him) things.  John cites George Packer, who says:
Part of Obama’s weakness has been this unwillingness or inability to say a few simple things passionately, which would let Americans know that he is on their side. Reagan knew how to do it, which meant that, even when his popularity was sinking at a similar point in his presidency (remember 1982?), the public still knew where he stood, not necessarily on the details of policy, but on a few core principles that he could at least pretend never to sacrifice.

Safire was harsh:
President Reagan, the former hard-liner, having turned his State Department over to a crew of waffling accommodationists, probably feels he occupies the middle ground in foreign affairs - and that his old supporters have ''nowhere else to go.'' He is profoundly mistaken. The revolt of the hawks is under way
See also this article on unhappy conservatives:
Forty-five conservative activists and organization leaders warned President Reagan today that he was allowing ''the abandonment, reversal or blunting'' of the policies that got him elected, such as opposition to abortion, lower taxes and a tough line with the Soviet Union.
And this similar piece.  Neither talks directly about his image, but he clearly wasn't articulating conservative principles in ways that could make conservatives happy.

What else?  The Times editorial board actually gave a fairly balanced assessment, although there was this:
The second Ronald Reagan, the one who blurts out startling, baseless statements, creates a different sort of doubt. In September, for example, he sug-gested that new regulations proclaiming ketchup to be a vegetable in an acceptable school lunch were the work of bureaucratic saboteurs. They were Reagan appointees. In a television interview in December, he made the bizarre assertion that many New Dealers ''actually espoused'' fascism. In the wake of his last news conference, Mr. Reagan left aides a week of cleaning up.
In time, even a patient public will begin to wonder how much else the aides are doing. Comments like these may be tolerable in a candidate quick with an index-card anecdote. They cast doubt on the clarity and credibility of a President.

The strategy of blaming Carter didn't seem to help in the polls:
Americans generally feel that President Reagan's program has hurt the economy so far, and this opinion is costing him support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
(To be fair, people were also optimistic about his policies helping eventually -- they didn't report a "who is to blame?" question.  As several have noted, Obama actually does very well on that question; people blame Bush for the mess the country is in, but also blame Obama for it not getting better).

The kicker is that while this is one year in, same as Obama is now, Reagan was only beginning to suffer.  His approval ratings would sink much lower before recovering.  His recession was just getting started -- unemployment was only up from 7.4% when he took office to 8.9% through December 1981, on it's way to almost 11% at peak.  I have no doubt that if I looked for stories later in 1982, the same traits would be portrayed even more negatively.  And then, when things rebounded, all of a sudden stubborn melted back to resolute, and his management style was relaxed again, and not careless.  Same guy, same traits, but different polling, and so different interpretation.

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