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Is There Anything Obama Could Have Done To Remain Popular?

The New York Times lead news analysis today contrasts President Obama's legislative success with his mediocre poll ratings:

If passage of the financial regulatory overhaul on Thursday proves anything about President Obama, it is this: He knows how to push big bills through a balky Congress.
But Mr. Obama’s legislative success poses a paradox: while he may be winning on Capitol Hill, he is losing with voters at a time of economic distress, and soon may be forced to scale back his ambitions....
Today, with unemployment remaining persistently near double digits despite the scale of the stimulus program and the BP oil spill having raised questions about his administration’s competence, Mr. Obama’s signature legislation is providing ammunition to conservatives who argue that government is the problem, not the solution.

Politico's big news analysis yesterday made a similar point. As this appears to be a new conventional wisdom -- Obama's big policy agenda has driven down his popularity -- it's worth considering a counterfactual: what if Obama didn't have an ambitious domestic agenda? Some downsides spring to mind immediately: he'd be abandoning his campaign platform, he'd be seen as weak and ineffectual, his base would be in full revolt. Would Republicans be less wild-eyed with rage? They were no less apoplectic at Bill Clinton even after Clinton abandoned his ambitious agenda. The conservative mood is like the sound system in Spinal Tap, always set at 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, but occasionally cranked up to 11.

Okay, but what if Obama never promised to reform health care in the first place? Suppose furthermore that he enacted a much smaller stimulus, and let's suppose that conservatives are right that such a plan would have helped the economy as much or more. And suppose that he decided not to pursue financial reform -- or, at least, pursued a plan that gained the assent of Wall Street and, thus, many Republicans. Would he be more popular now?

Let me answer this question with another question: Am I the only person who remembers George H.W. Bush? He presided over a recession, albeit a far milder one. And he was lambasted for lacking an agenda. The notion that Bush lacked a domestic agenda was the defining indictment of his presidency. Here's a very typical piece of analysis, also from the New York Times, from April 30, 1992:

Fifty-eight percent of the 1,151 registered voters questioned April 20-23 said the Administration was drifting without clear policies. More than a third said it was moving carefully to develop its plans, a reversal from April 1989, at the start of the Bush Presidency, when 61 percent said the Administration was moving carefully. ...
Acknowledging that Mr. Bush had not yet given Americans a vision of where he would take the country in a second term, Marlin Fitzwater, the President's spokesman, said, "By the time of the convention we want to have laid out an intellectual framework of what's been accomplished, what needs to be reformed and our vision of the future."

Even if Obama had the political space with Democrats to abandon his campaign platform, and even if he could have enacted some non-controversial stimulus without any economic ill effects, voters would still be upset over the economy. The accusation would simply be that he's an impotent bystander to the crisis. It's certainly true that voters disapprove of the stimulus. But that's no reason to assume that Obama had any more politically expedient course of action at hand. Different world leaders have tried all sorts of domestic approaches during the economic crisis, and pretty much all of them have seen their popularity fall.