May 21, 2013

The voices of reason have spoken, and they have concluded Barack Obama isn’t being hurt by scandalmania because perceptions of the economy are improving. That’s the determination of the Post’s polling and politics team. Others agree: Nate Silver suspects the scandals are in fact hurting him a bit, but it’s masked by improvements sparked by the economy, and he’s joined by Jamelle Bouie and Matthew Yglesias.

For the most part, that’s fine, but the analysis seems a bit too planted in the 1990s. Yglesias, for example:

And anyone who remembers the 1990s will remember that these kind of fundamentals ultimately trump everything else. If things are going well for people in their actual lives, they’ll be relatively content with the powers that be no matter what the news out of congressional hearings is.

Fair enough (and for more of the political science analysis of the Clinton years and public opinion, see Seth Masket). But be careful! In the 1980s, the Iran-contra scandal took Ronald Reagan from 63 percent Gallup approval in late October, 1986, to 47 percent in early December, where it stayed more or less until finally recovering in summer 1988. And then there’s Watergate; Richard Nixon’s Gallup approval was at 65 percent in mid-February 1973; the cover-up unraveled in March and April, and by May he was down to 45 percent. Neither of these episodes was accompanied by economic collapse or other things in voters’ “actual lives.” They were pure Washington stories, and they really did have a strong effect on presidential popularity.

My guess — and it’s just a guess — is that despite the media frenzy, most people have paid little or no attention to all of this, and to the extent they have paid attention, only partisan Republicans are really engaged and blame Barack Obama for wrongdoing. What’s more, as the Post polling indicates, many Americans are (for better or worse) happy to have the government crack down on leaks even if (or maybe especially if?) it infringes on the press. And anyone who is inclined to like the president can easily interpret the IRS story to date as one of Barack Obama cracking down on misbehaving bureaucrats. However, if the news becomes significantly worse for the White House, I wouldn’t count on good economic news saving the president’s popularity. The economic outlook may supply the context, but there’s often more than that to overall presidential approval.