[Guest post by Jonathan Bernstein:]
Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist. He blogs at A plain blog about politics.
Just last month, Matt Bai "discovered" that the source of Barack Obama's troubles was that the Democrats weren't specific enough in their campaign proposals during the 2006 and 2008 campaigns. He's back again today with yet another explanation for Obama's sagging approval ratings; now, it seems that Americans have soured on Obama because he's too much of a legislator. It was nonsense then, and it's nonsense now. It's not complicated at all: Obama's approval ratings have fallen because the economy stinks. End of story. Anything else is on the margins...and it's certainly possible that everything else is pushing his ratings up, not down.
The sad part is that there are at least two interesting stories Bai could have told. One is a story of what Democratic insiders believe is going on. It sounds as if he actually got a fair amount of that...he hears "the party's leading strategists" tell him that the president has a problem with framing issues properly, and really that's what John Podesta is telling him, too. Unfortunately, because the story is written as Bai's search for a hidden "real" explanation, he basically dismisses what those strategists have to say, and perhaps much of what Podesta has to say. But those things are actually interesting, and important. Do leading Democrats believe that the president has veered too far to the left? Do they believe that all or at least most of the party's troubles are basically just a reflection of the economy? Or do they in fact believe that message, and not substance, is the problem? What these insiders believe is going on can be terribly important -- not because they are well-positioned to actually know the true explanation, but because they're likely to act on whatever it is that they believe, and those actions will have consequences.
The second story Bai could have told is one about how the president is actually apportioning his time and effort between legislating and other activities. Obama has been criticized for placing a very low priority on filling vacancies at the Fed, and more generally for being slow to nominate people to executive branch positions, but we haven't seen all that much reporting about the process. Now, that would have required a different set of interviews for Bai, but it certainly is possible that he could have shed some light on this story. Is Obama in fact, as a former legislator, prone to overlooking other aspects of the presidency? I don't know the answer to that, but it's an important question -- even though outside of perhaps the Fed positions, it's not likely to be a question that will explain much about his current approval levels. Still, an answer to this question could help us understand quite a bit about the Obama administration, since many things are important even if they don't affect approval ratings and elections.
Instead, unfortunately, Bai gives us fantasy. We're told that former governors Clinton and Reagan didn't have this legislator's problem that's dragging Obama down, but of course Clinton and Reagan were if anything less popular in the second August of their presidencies than Obama is. We're told that his legislator's focus prevented him from entering into "White House partnerships with Republican governors or even with conservative foundations or industry groups," but not told about the fate of Charlie Crist, who was booted out of his party for daring to work with the president. And in a truly breathtaking flight from reality...well, let me give you the paragraph:
Think of it this way: if your singular goal is to pass bills, and Democratic lawmakers are in a frenzy this week over A.I.G.’s bonuses or Goldman Sachs’s investments, then you might feel forced to castigate big business, too.
Huh? So the problem for Barack Obama is that if only he wasn't foolishly allowing himself to be held hostage by crazed Dem members of Congress, he'd be free to embrace AIG and Goldman? And that would make him more popular? You know, I don't really think that the president's rhetoric can change very much, but even I am fairly sure that had Obama heroically stood with AIG, Goldman, and big business, he'd be a good 5-10 points lower in the polls, not to mention that various liberal senators and governors might suddenly be feeling the urge to take their summer vacations this year in Iowa and New Hampshire.
All told, it's a disaster of a piece, especially since it appears to be a waste of some potentially interesting interviews.
You know...this isn't only Matt Bai's fault. It's also a mistake by the Times. The category of reported analysis piece was, if I have the history correct, basically invented in reaction to the advent of TV, and especially 24-hour cable news networks -- no longer would readers really count on their morning newspaper to tell them the basics of what had happened the previous day, and so newspapers tried to find things to do that TV news wasn't giving their viewers. The first problem is that the sorts of things that make someone a good traditional reporter aren't necessarily the things that make that person a good analyst. The second is that Bai and the Times aren't living in a world dominated by Walter Cronkite or the old CNN Headline News Network; they're living in a news environment that has Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Chait constantly pointing out the connection between the economy and presidential success, and also political scientists such as Brendan Nyhan and John Sides and Seth Masket and, well, me, all of whom have carefully explained the relationships between the economy, presidential approval, and elections. There's still room for reported analysis -- in fact, done well it's as important as ever -- but it's no longer a scarce resource, and I think in practice that means that to be worthwhile, it has to be engaged with the larger conversation. New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat have done that with their opinions, by addressing counterarguments in their (highly recommended) NYT blogs. I don't know, but I think it must help them to know that whatever they write they'll have to be prepared to defend.