If the Washington press corps tried to cover reality
It’s a cruel summer for Democrats, and the media are filled with analyses of what’s gone wrong with the Obama presidency.
The main problem with these pieces is that they soft-pedal the real, and really the only, reason that Obama’s approval rating is low (and it isn’t even that low – Pollster.com’s “poll of polls” puts it 46.1 percent, compared to 48.3 percent who disapprove). Generally speaking, the broad American public barely follows politics, especially in a non-presidential election year. For instance, I’d bet that most people have never heard of the “New Black Panthers.” Americans do, however, respond to objective economic conditions, and those are very bad right now. It’s a wonder Obama’s approval isn’t a lot lower.
The media still assume that when Obama gives a speech, or meets with some foreign leader, or that when the oil well gets capped, the public opinion needle moves. Maybe it does, for a short while, though such movements are hard to separate from noise. The fallacy is the assumption that enough speeches and salesmanship and short-term political victories and gaffes by opponents can move the needle of public opinion almost anywhere, and that political ninja skills can keep it there. That’s just not true, as Brendan Nyhan points out in a post critiquing a piece by Slate’s John Dickerson:
In reality, however, there’s no evidence that Obama has become any less effective as a salesman — as I’ve repeatedly pointed out over the years (e.g. here, here, here, and here), presidents can rarely generate significant shifts in public opinion in support of their domestic policy agenda. Obama’s failure to generate increased support for the stimulus and health care is not the least bit surprising, especially given the political environment in which he’s operating.
The larger problem with this analysis is that Dickerson is constructing a post hoc narrative about Obama’s poll numbers using the epistemology of journalism, which treats tactics as the dominant causal force in politics. Within that worldview, if Obama’s numbers used to be high and they are now low, the only logical conclusion is that “his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged.” The idea that Obama’s numbers have declined across the board in large part due to the state of the economy is only briefly acknowledged (“or [the public] can’t hear [Obama] over the bad economic news”).
But if the president’s day-to-day statements, speeches and photo ops truly have virtually no electoral consequences, what are journalists supposed to cover? What would happen if the media based its assumptions for covering politics on the way politics actually worked?
For political media, it’s all about election results. The goal is to tell us what actions today will shape tomorrow’s elections and longer-term electoral coalitions, and ultimately what that means for people. If they really wanted to do that accurately, reporters would have to change their assumptions and upgrade their technical skills. Here are a few suggestions:
-Put political tactics in perspective. A news cycle full of Gibbs quips, Biden gaffes, gotcha questions, the outrage-of-the-day, anything Sarah Palin says or does, etc. tells us little. In general, political reporters should be more skeptical about the agency of presidential aides and political strategists in influencing public opinion and voting. I’m not saying ignore the tactical stuff – just assign it something less than the world-historical importance it now has. That will be tough, though, because most political reporters fancy themselves political strategists, and envy the real ones. But in fact, the slavish devotion to “savvy” and the conventional wisdom of the moment tends to circumscribe debates and limit political options. It’s all very meta, and one reason why the reason the system is broken.
-Understand public opinion and polling. Reporters should be able to explain how voters really respond to economic changes and political trends. Right now, most can’t, or won’t. Reference: fivethirtyeight.com.
-Focus on what the government actually does. If elections are determined mostly by economic conditions, political reporters should focus more on the levers of economic policy, examining what Obama, Congress and the Fed are, and could be, doing to boost economic growth and employment. This would, however, require a level of literacy in the subject matter that most political journalists do not have, and also a willingness to challenge statements and assumptions by politicians about the economy that they’re not currently in the habit of doing. But if the political press corps were more economically literate, and used that literacy intelligently, the level of BS in our political debates might actually fall.