If only Obama had ...
See if this structure seems familiar to you: Over the past two years, Barack Obama has done X. Now, his poll numbers have slipped to 44 percent. His party is slated to lose a lot of seats in the 2010 midterms. Obama's decision to do X is to blame.
"X" can be a lot of things. Maybe it's the decision to attempt health-care reform. Or his socialist tendencies. Or his cool, professorial demeanor. In Matt Bai's latest article, John Podesta says it's Obama's pursuit of an ambitious legislative agenda. If he'd spent less time passing legislation, he could've spent more time developing and selling popular themes. In John Judis's latest article, it's the absence of populism in Obama's speeches and policies.
The problem with the essays is that they don't consider the counterfactual. What if Obama had done not-X? Would things really be better for him? How do we know they wouldn't be worse?
Sadly, we can't hit rewind on the cosmic VCR and persuade Obama to do the other thing in the name of science. But we have had a number of presidents who did very different things, and that gives us some basis on which to make judgments. Let's start with approval ratings. Gallup's system will let me compare only four presidents at once, so I chose the last three presidents who entered office amid a recession and didn't have a country-unifying terrorist attack in their first year. That gives us Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. The dashed line is an average of all recent presidents. Click on the graph for a larger version.
Obama's current approval rating of 44 percent beats Clinton, Carter and Reagan. All of them were between 39 percent and 41 percent at this point in their presidencies. And all of them were former governors who accomplished less legislatively than Obama has at this point in his presidency. That seems like a problem for Bai's thesis. At least two of them are remembered as great communicators with a deft populist touch. That seems like a problem for Judis's thesis.
Now let's look at midterm results. The following graph shows the change in House seats for the president's party in every first-term midterm election since 1900.
The pattern here is obvious: Losses, and big ones. Except for FDR's first midterm and George W. Bush's post-9/11 victory, there've been no gains at all.
Now, this is a bit of an imperfect comparison. When the president's party controls more seats, it can lose more seats. In 1982, Republicans had 192 seats in the House, and they lost 26 of them. Democrats currently have 253 seats in the House, and Larry Sabato predicts they'll lose 32 of them. That's actually a smaller percentage than what the Republicans lost under Reagan.
There's plenty to criticize in Obama's policies and plenty to lament in his politics. But when it comes to grand theories explaining how his strategic decisions led him to this horrible -- but historically, slightly-better-than-average -- political position, I'm skeptical. There are enormously powerful structural forces in American politics that seem to drag down first-term presidents. There is the simple mathematical reality that large majorities are always likely to lose a lot of seats. There is a terrible and ongoing economic slump -- weekly jobless claims hit 500,000 today -- that is causing Americans immense pain and suffering. Any explanations for the current political mood that don't put those front and center is, at the least, not doing enough to challenge the counterfactual.