There’s an old joke in advertising circles that goes like this: A big firm gets an account to launch a new brand of dog food. It’s an all-hands-on-deck operation, with people working flat-out on logos, slogans, music, endorsements, product placement, and ads suited to every medium. Launch day comes, and everything goes perfectly. But after a couple of weeks, sales are miserable, and it becomes clear that the campaign is tanking.

The entire firm gathers in the big conference room for a gloomy post-mortem. Each element of the launch is second-guessed, and recriminations are flying. Finally, a junior writer in a seat against the wall timidly raises his hand and ventures his opinion: “Maybe the dogs didn’t like it.”

Leading Democrats and pundits are dismayed that the president and congress haven’t gotten credit for an impressive record of accomplishment. Rescuing the banking system and the U.S. auto industry, passing the stimulus, health care, financial regulatory reform—it’s hard to deny that these are major steps, taken in dauntingly difficult circumstances. Even some of the president’s frequent critics, such as columnist Robert Samuelson, concede that without bold measures to stabilize financial institutions, we could well have faced a global depression.

But the dogs didn’t like it. In a survey out last week, Gallup finds that of five major pieces of legislation, only financial regulatory reform enjoys majority support. In brief:



Approve

Disapprove

Financial regulatory reform

61

37

Stimulus package

43

52

Auto industry rescue

43

56

Healthcare bill

39

56

Financial institution rescue

37

61


Two findings stand out. First, contrary to many predictions, there is no evidence that health reform has become more popular in the six months since its passage. And second, the item about which there is the least controversy among experts and knowledgeable figures in both parties—namely, preventing the global financial system from collapsing—enjoys the least public support of all.

The art of democratic leadership is to mobilize public majorities around measures that promote the general welfare. Judged against that standard, the past two years have been a failure—even if one believes that everything on the Gallup list was necessary and wise.

We will never know whether a different approach would have produced a better result. But a few things are clear: 

* The failure of the stimulus to produce a more hopeful job market has cast a pall over everything else.

* The public regards the year spent debating health reform as a diversion from what it thinks should have been a sustained focus on the economy.

* And whatever its economic merits, the failure of the financial rescue to mete out justice to the financial leaders that got us into this mess has outraged the public’s moral sense. Given its composition, the president’s economic team could not have been expected to be especially sensitive to this concern, and it wasn’t. It was the president’s job to ensure that justice was not just done, but seen to be done. The public doesn’t think he did it.

The bottom line: the majority can neither run on its record nor run away from it. Its only hope is to convince the American people that giving power to an opposition party in its angriest and least moderate mood would only make things worse.