The president of the United States presides over a sluggish economy. Unemployment is increasing, gas prices are high and his administration’s various initiatives to boost the depressed housing market – a key economic influence – have all failed. Consumer and business confidence remain low and economists are downgrading growth forecasts. Yet Barack Obama’s approval ratings remain above 40 per cent and he seems as popular in Europe as his predecessor was reviled. Is this simply down to public relations?
The White House, of course, does put a positive spin on all negative perceptions. The line is that the president inherited an economic mess that is taking longer than expected to fix; recovery is underway, affirming the president’s policies; the benefits of ObamaCare will soon become evident; Osama bin Laden has been taken out; the Afghanistan “preemptive withdrawal” strategy is working; and Libya is a matter for European and Arab countries and doesn’t require US leadership.
Still, much as we PR folks pride ourselves on our craft, there is a limit to what talking points can achieve. This narrative may satisfy political sympathizers but it is surely not enough to explain Barack Obama’s continuing level of popularity as the United States enters its election campaign season. Almost all of his predecessors had better economic records or could boast some significant progress in foreign policy. The fact is, Obama’s basic record does not compare favorably. So here are some non-spin explanations as to why he is still very much in the game.
First, there is currently no alternative to Barack Obama. Republican hopefuls have only just begun vying to win the opportunity to challenge him. The most likely choice at this point in time appears to be Mitt Romney, hardly a popular politician in his own party given the failing health care entitlement he introduced as governor of Massachusetts. Tougher opponents like Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey have said they won’t be competing. Several other candidates could emerge, including Sarah Palin, the bête noire of European intellectuals, but at the moment there is no clear leader rallying the conservative base.
Second, although the economy is doing badly, many voters are willing to give the president a little longer before judging whether his deficit-led/ weak dollar approach has helped or made things worse. The jury is still out on Obama’s economic policies.
Third, Obama is the consummate social justice politician governing in a social entitlement era. Most people in Europe have grown up expecting the state to take care of their old age and ill-health, and to intervene in economic activities for the common good. The United States is perhaps a generation behind this curve but its entitlement programs are in many ways more generous than Europe’s. The wheels of our entitlement culture are beginning to look wobbly, with riots in debt-ridden Greece, resistance to austerity measures in Portugal, and budget travails in California. But the financial limits of big government are still not widely accepted among independents and liberals. The US federal government has been protected from high interest rates by the reserve status of the dollar but with the big three entitlements – social security, Medicare and Medicaid – all heading towards insolvency, judgment day is coming ever closer to Washington. The backlash has begun in the United States with the Tea Party movement but hard political choices can still be deferred for now and Obama has even extended the gravy train with his controversial ObamaCare legislation.
Fourth, the US media is overwhelmingly pro-Democratic, pro-big government and overtly partisan. This means that the president does not have to contend with the same levels of scrutiny and criticism as his predecessor or his political opponents. The new electronic media and Fox News have injected some balance into the equation, but the playing field is still heavily tilted in the president’s favor.
Add to these four facets the personal appeal of the president, a predisposition among Americans to want their presidents to succeed, the absence of personal scandals and the discipline of former officials to keep differences to themselves, and we have the basis for Barack Obama’s current approval levels. In Europe, his unwillingness to flex America’s muscles, particularly in Libya, is also an approach that has been largely embraced.
But two things are sure to change over the next year. First, Barack Obama will have an opponent who will challenge and bring greater attention to his record. Second, voters will be entitled to make a judgment on the president’s economic record. Will they feel better off than four years earlier? Will they believe that the economy is getting better as a result of the president’s policies?
Public relations cannot claim the credit for the president’s approval ratings. Too many other factors are at work. A lot will happen between now and Election Day and, as the campaigning gets underway, the real spin starts now.