Monday, May 13, 2013

Oy, Fournier

Say what? 
Why does this matter? Because a president’s credibility matters. President Bush’s second term effectively ended when Americans grew tired of his administration’s spinning and dissembling over Iraq and Katrina. They stopped trusting him. They stopped listening to him. He no longer had the moral authority to lead.
That's Ron Fournier on Benghazi and the IRS story, and it's dead wrong.

What hurt, and then destroyed, Bush's approval ratings was very simple: events. There was no way to spin the ongoing policy disaster in Iraq from summer 2003 through, well, pretty much the end of the Bush Administration. There was no way to spin the drowning of a major US city (including the parts of that which were mostly unfair to the administration). There was no way to spin a recession from the end of 2007 on, or the financial disaster in fall 2008. 

Generally, if we follow Neustadt, it's better to think of these "credibility gap" arguments has applying mainly to Washingtonians -- people who directly or indirectly deal with the president -- rather than to mass publics. Voters, as such, don't pay close attention to whether the president is trustworthy, at least not as a separate category from whether they think much of him, which in turn is probably not really a separate category from (1) partisanship and (2) events. 

That's easy to see in the presidency of Bill Clinton, right? Clinton certainly lied, and was caught lying, with regard to the Lewinsky scandal. But his popularity went up during that period. Why? Surely not because of his "moral authority to lead!" No, it was because of every president's best friends, peace and prosperity. 

Now, obviously, it is possible for scandals to affect presidential popularity -- see Watergate in 1973-1974 and Iran-Contra in 1986-1987. But even then, my guess is that what the presidents did mattered as much as anything -- and of course, with Watergate, the lies were much larger and more consistent than anything that's even been hinted at so far with Obama. 

I do think that presidential credibility matters in Washington. By the end of his presidency, neither Democrats nor Republicans really trusted George W. Bush very much, and that mattered -- see, for example, Republican resistance to TARP, among other things. But I think it's the wrong way to think about voter views of the president.


  1. Clinton's numbers went up during Lewinsky not because peace and prosperity somehow increased a great deal over those few months, but because, in the context of a question on the phone, and without necessarily having heard a question yet on one's opinion of impeachment/censure/nothing as a reaction, saying you approved was one of the only ways a poll respondent could tell Gallup "things are going well, and he didn't do enough bad to justify what the Republicans are doing."

    1. Well, if you want to get all technical and all...

      But my point is that the context of peace and prosperity had a lot to do with that. If Lewinsky happens along with an unpopular war or a recession, I'd think the reaction would be different.

  2. I would argue that partisanship has everything to do with it. Arguably Iran-contra was just as bad as Watergate, but most of the players came through unscathed, and Reagan himself is viewed pretty much as a saint by conservatives.

    I agree. Trustworthiness has little to do with how a president is perceived at this point.

  3. "That's Ron Fournier on _____, and it's dead wrong."

    Just to make that a little easier.

    1. To be fair, I have enjoyed Fournier often when he's been a reporter.

      It's his "analysis" or "opinion" pieces that are pure shite.

  4. Kenneth AlmquistMay 13, 2013 at 11:05 PM

    I think that Bush's main problem at the end of his presidency, even in Washington, was primarily his lack of popularity. During Bush's first term, there were no major policy disagreements within the Republican Party. When public opinion turned against Bush, Republican members of Congress had an incentive to distance themselves from Bush, and the TARP vote gave them an opportunity to do that.

  5. If the economy booms and Obama enters 2014 with a 65% approval rating, Fournier will be reporting how the President got his moral authority back. Pundits will praise Obama for his astonishing leadership skills.

    1. Probably true. That's not what happened with Clinton, however; most reporters continued to insist that the scandal was hurting him and that he was unpopular, no matter what the polls said. But I think Clinton was a rare case.


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