Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
As I write this column on Tuesday afternoon, I am sure that Barack Obama is busily beavering away, getting ready for his second State of the Union address, which he will deliver tonight, Tuesday night.
No doubt, you will be able to read (or listen to or watch) all sorts of commentary today, Wednesday, from people far wiser than I, explaining why the president’s speech was a brilliant success – or, of course, a complete abject failure.
Needless to say, whether you are told that the speech was a success or a failure will not depend on the speech itself. It will depend only on who you’re reading, watching or listening to.
The only way you’ll know you’re getting a true, sincere opinion about the speech will be if you happen to find someone whose evaluation runs flatly against everything that commenter stands for.
If Rush Limbaugh hails the speech, you’d better believe it was great. If Keith Olbermann somehow battles his way back onto the airwaves to declare the speech a brutal failure … you’ll know for certain that Obama blew it.
But the odds are that liberals will like it and conservatives will hate it and the world will go on.
Still, I have been reading lately that Obama’s national approval rating has been rising. And that’s cool because … gee, just like in high school, popularity is all that really matters.
If you’re not one of the popular Kool Kids, you’ll be sitting home on Prom Night.
And we don’t want that happening to our president, do we? (Well, yeah, some of us do.)
To be sure, Obama’s level of approval was never really all that bad. Despite everything you may have heard about his “failed presidency” and his “deep unpopularity,” the president’s approval/ disapproval level has been roughly at a 50-50 split, give or take a few percentage points, for more than a year now.
I have read a lot of explanations for the recent approval jump from 45 percent on New Year’s Eve (about as low as it ever got) to 51 percent today. Most of the explanations are about how Obama has “reacted well” to the election results and how he’s “moving toward the center” and “ready to compromise” and how everybody just loves that.
The reason Obama’s ratings are rising is that, with the 2010 elections over, the right wing has stopped spending millions of dollars on ads attacking him.
Think back to August, when everyone was gearing up for the election. Throughout the primary season, Republicans battled to see who could veer furthest to the right – and there was no easier way to demonstrate your right-wing credentials than by bashing the president.
And that was when Obama’s approval started to sink. As I said, he was never very far below 50 percent approval, but as the primary season ad blitz began, for the first time, “disapprove” gained and held on to the upper hand.
And, once the furthest-right candidate had won the nomination, the obvious strategy was to continue bashing the president right on through until Election Day. And that bashing was accomplished with hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising. Total spending on the 2010 elections was $4 billion – and a significant chunk of that was spent attacking Obama.
If you look at it that way, the president’s continuing popularity is almost a miracle. They spent hundreds of millions attacking him and only managed to drive his approval rating down from 48 percent in June 2010 to 45 percent on Election Day. With that kind of money, you’d think you could launch a car or a television show or a new snack food. (“Weasel Cakes! Now with green frosting!”) And they barely dented Obama’s approval rating.
Anyway, in early November, just like that, the election was over and the money went away. Suddenly, no one had any reason to spend any real money attacking the president.
And – who could possibly have expected such a thing? – his popularity began to improve.
I don’t think this really demonstrates anything about compromise or political shifts. It’s just a testament to the power of advertising.
Gee, advertising works. Who could have suspected such a thing?
Of course, the positive effect of the end of the advertising attacks was combined with the sad but inescapable positive effect of the tragic shootings in Tucson in early January. Obama’s popularity was already rising when that awful event occurred, but nothing helps a president’s popularity like a tragedy. That’s terrible but true. The obvious example, of course, would be George W. Bush whose popularity soared after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But presidential popularity is a fragile and unpredictable thing.
Consider for a moment Ronald Reagan.
We have all been trained by now to remember his glowing popularity – even those of us who considered him a truly rotten president somehow still do remember how popular he was despite it all.
But Reagan was, in fact, far less popular than Obama.
Let’s say that again, to make sure we’re all paying attention: At the beginning of 1983, roughly the same point in his presidential career that Barack Obama has now reached, Ronald Reagan was seriously unpopular with the American people.
Reagan’s approval rating in January 1983 was 35 percent. Obama has never fallen nearly that low.
And, speaking of popularity, after hitting his post-9-11 peak of well over 80 percent approval, George W. Bush hit the skids and bottomed out below 30 percent.
So, as all too many bright and pretty teenagers discover after high school popularity is highly overrated.
What does count? Competence, I guess. And courage. And honesty. And steadiness.
But, in the end, most of all … advertising.
So we’ll all listen to the State of the Union address – or not – and we’ll all love it or hate it. Or not.
And then I guess we’ll all just hunker down and wait for the next advertising blitz to tell us what we really believe.
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