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.
Mr. Obama didn’t do what Ronald Reagan, who also faced a poor economy early in his administration, did — namely, shelter himself from criticism with a narrative that placed the blame on previous administrations...Reagan, however, had a ready answer for critics: everything going wrong was the result of the failed policies of the past. In effect, Reagan spent his first few years in office continuing to run against Jimmy Carter.
Fortunately, it's possible to look back and see what how Reagan looked at the time. The truth is that, contrary to what Packer and Krugman say, when things got bad in the economy people didn't think that Reagan had clearly articulated principles, and he did not successfully shelter himself from criticism, although it's true that he tried to blame Carter for everything.
I pulled up all of the NYT articles about Reagan published from January 10 through the end of January, 1982, and read everything that seemed to promise some sort of evaluation of Reagan. Long story short: analysis of Reagan found him to be a mixed bag, but there's no sense at all his rhetoric being particularly effective in keeping him out of trouble. In fact, just as Obama's manner has gone from "cool under fire" when things were good to "distant and detached" when things are bad, Reagan's manner moved from amiable and clear on the big picture to clueless and oblivious to the important details of governing -- and indifferent to suffering -- when things were going bad.
I'm going to pull out several quotations, from both news analysis and opinion pieces. This is selective, not to bash Reagan, but to show that there were plenty of criticisms of his style, including his ability to communicate. There are some positive comments I'm not including; however, they don't contradict my main point, which is that character traits are perceived by the press in light of how the president is doing in the polls and in Washington, not the other way around.
OK, here goes. In each case, the emphasis is added.
I'll start with a big-picture magazine piece
, from Hedrick Smith, which tells us that "the magic is gone," and that "the Reagan Administration has fallen victim to its own optimism." Smith was generally positive about Reagan's image (Reagan was confident and relaxed), although he did note the down side of those traits:
[H]e has not shown the voracious curiosity of Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy about the world nor the prowling, selfprotective inquisitiveness of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon...[Single-mindedness and inattention to details] leaves him more dependent on often troublesome subordinates like Mr. Stockman and Secretary Haig, therefore, perhaps more hesitant to dismiss them...With that image, he runs the risk of looking unconcerned about the social and economic divisions that his policies are sharpening, or lacking in genuine compassion for the disadvantaged.
Moving on. In an article on press conferences
For President Reagan, news conference exposure offers an opportunity to go directly before the public and rebut criticism that he is too detached from the governing process, is not really well informed on some critical issues or is an overly relaxed executive. But rather than maximize that exposure, Mr. Reagan has taken the surprisingly modest tack of scheduling all seven of his nationally televised news conferences in the afternoon...some top Presidential aides privately heave a sigh of relief every time the President finishes a news conference without suffering major damage.
Ronald Reagan has been condemned by the Russians as a warmonger, criticized by his allies as a wassailer and battered by the radical conservatives of his own party as a traitor to his own campaign promises...Mr. Reagan's old buddies on the Republican right are cutting him up. In some ways, they are being more mean and critical than his natural opponents in the other party...So the President has fiddled in his own amiable way with all this...Yet even he and his colleagues know that it's not really working. The people on the right and left in this country and also his allies and his adversaries are critical because they don't think he can really make up his mind, and most of them wouldn't like it if he did.
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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