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Primitive Politics: Is the Problem with the Economy that Obama is a Beta Male?

John on September 2, 2011 at 10:35 am

The headline may sound provocative but I’m actually relying partly on a post by the NY Times’ Nate Silver. Yesterday, Silver took a look at economic performance and how it correlates with the President’s job approval. What he found was surprising:

I’ve run through several other permutations of this analysis — accounting for other factors like the share of the vote that Mr. Obama received in 2008, or the amount of stimulus funding that each state obtained — and the results have always been the same. The relationship between Mr. Obama’s approval ratings and the economic performance of each state has been either neutral or somewhat inversely correlated.

This leads him to an interesting conclusion:

perceptions about Mr. Obama tend to drive feelings about the economy as much as the other way around. The reason to think this is because economic optimism is strongly correlated with the vote share that Mr. Obama received in each state in 2008, long before voters would have reason to blame him for economic conditions. The voters in states where economic confidence is low tended not to like Mr. Obama to begin with.

Silver explains that there is an upside and a downside to this for the President. The upside is that since his numbers don’t seem to be connected to the underlying data, they could come up next year even if the economy does not. On the other hand:

Say that a lack of confidence in Mr. Obama is contributing to economic pessimism. And say that this economic pessimism is contributing, on some level, to the tepid recovery…If so, this could create something of a feedback loop, with diminishing confidence in Mr. Obama, diminishing confidence in the economy, and an actual decline in economic performance all reinforcing one another.

I don’t want to put words in Silver’s mouth, so let’s be clear that what follows is my opinion not his.

It sounds to me as if Americans, especially those who were not enthused about him in the first place, have seen enough to conclude that Obama is not up to the job. If so, then so long as he remains in office, confidence will be low. Indeed that’s exactly the predictions we’re hearing from the CBO now. Stagnant growth and high unemployment will continue through 2012.

This matches the general outlines of what happened under President Carter. The economy was a mess and as he struggled to deal with it, people lost confidence in him as a leader. At a certain point, fair or not, Carter himself became the locus of failure. His famous malaise speech was taken as a kind of admission that he was out of ideas, a throwing up of hands at the problem. Many Americans decided he wasn’t up to the job and when they saw him next to Reagan, who was a classic alpha male, Reagan won.

Many have noticed that the taller man often wins the Presidential race. It could be a coincidence but there’s no doubt we have an innate disposition to seek out powerful leaders, i.e. alpha males. This tendency may not always override our rational faculties but it does seem to under-gird them.

I think all of this explains why President Obama is giving this big economic speech next week and why it might not work. He’s trying to avoid Carter’s fate by taking charge. He’s betting he can still persuade us he’s a leader. But what if the lack of confidence in Obama has passed the point of rational argument?

Consider the host of complaints bubbling on the left. For instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates recently suggested Obama could learn a lot from Lincoln about the art of politics and “whipping Johnny Reb.” Boil all of the noise away and you get this: He’s wimping out. The left wants him to fight to be, as Jonathan Capehart recently (and prematurely) crowed, a bad ass.

Meanwhile, the right has never fogotten his so-called “apology tour” or his bowing to foreign dictators. It drives conservatives crazy and is frequently featured in political speeches critical of the President. It’s visceral.

What these observations have in common is a judgment by Americans across the political spectrum that the President is not assertive or aggressive enough. In short he’s not behaving like an alpha male. And in troubled times, that’s what Americans want. Their reasons may differ (to defeat the right, to stand up to foreign threats) but the desire is universal. I don’t think this is something that can be fixed with a speech.

In fact, it’s similar to the problem conservatives had warming up to Gov. Pawlenty. He looked good on paper, his speeches were so-so and yet there was something missing. A spark. I saw him give a speech at a political event earlier this year. He was speaking quite forcefully and I thought he seemed to be making an impression. And then there was a shout from someone at the back of the room. I don’t recall what it was about, but I caught Pawlenty’s reaction. He flinched. He stopped in mid-sentence and took a small, almost imperceptible step backwards. There it is, I thought. That’s why he won’t win.

Before you complain too loudly about this kind of analysis, consider that charisma and a kind of rock star status played a big role in Obama’s ride to the White House. It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for him now when he has benefited so tremendously from this sort of visceral politics in the past. Those who live by the sword…

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