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Why Obama’s popularity still matters

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Matt Yglesias asks on Twitter: “Given that Obama is ineligible for reelection, why do I care if scandals or pseudoscandals hurt him politically?”

Great question!

Three answers.

1. Presidential popularity definitely has an effect on the coming midterm elections, both through recruiting effects and more directly on voters, who will be more likely to support Democrats if the Democrat in the White House is popular. That will also be true when it comes to recruitment for the 2016 cycle, too.

2. Presidential popularity probably has an effect on the next presidential election. For that, there’s not much reason to care about scandals in the next couple of years, but as we get closer to 2016, it should matter.

3. Presidential popularity probably affects how influential the president is now, both with Congress and with everyone else who the president must influence in order to get things done.

Richard Neustadt actually argued that what matters isn’t so much the president’s actual popularity, but what Washingtonians perceive as the president’s popularity — and that it matters what they think of the president’s overall popularity and also his popularity within their constituencies. Usually the polls are a good proxy for that, but not always; sometimes (and I think the first half of the Lewinsky scandal in 1998 was a good example) people inside the Beltway have been known to substitute their own judgement of what people are thinking with what the polls say.

What Neustadt says is that popularity affects people by making them more or less willing to give the president “leeway.” That seems about right. When President Obama was still over 60 percent in the polls in early 2009, a few Republican senators were willing to break with their party and support the stimulus package; a year later, with the president under 50 percent and the Scott Brown election “showing” everyone in Washington that Obama was in trouble, no Republicans would have anything to do with him. On the other hand, Obama’s continuing very strong support among Democrats has meant that he usually has a great deal of leeway from those within his party.

Remember, too, that presidents need things from lots of people, not just votes from members of Congress. Bureaucrats, lobbyists, governors and more: All of them have business with the White House, all of them have things the president wants and most of them have constituents to whom they must answer. The more they believe that their constituents like Obama, the more they’re likely to go along with what he wants. There’s no precise formula for this; it’s more a question of tilting the scales during bargaining, or even, at the extremes, making some presidential preferences go from realistic to unrealistic.

So: The bottom line is that anyone who wants Obama to get what he wants during his second term should also want him to be popular. And anyone who wants Democrats to do well in 2014 (and 2016) should want him to be popular.