Hello Everyone,

I’ll touch on two topics this time.

Afghanistan Speech

I think President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan was pure Obama – balanced, complicated, nuanced. No demagoguery, rather: “…al Qaeda – a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam…” Not “Islamic extremists.” Focused on al Qaeda (mentioned over 20 times), not exporting democracy or nation building. The latter’s only mention: “…the nation I’m most interested in building is our own.” I liked his Eisenhower quotation about national security: “Each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain a balance in and among national programs.” Balance. Recognition of our “limits of power” as Bacevich would have it.

This President continues to impress me, and I continue to trust his judgment. He is, once again, getting “flak from all sides” – a good sign in my opinion. As David Brooks, my favorite conservative commentator, wrote the day before the speech:

President Obama faces such a devilishly complex set of constraints that the policy he announces will be partially unsatisfying to every American and to every member of his administration…Nonetheless, my impression, pre-speech, is that Obama has negotiated these constraints in a serious manner, and improved some of his options – for example, by accelerating troop deployments. He has not been enthusiastic about expanding the U.S. role in Afghanistan, but he has not evaded his responsibility as commander in chief, and he’s taking brave political risks.

And, Brooks wrote today:

The Obama White House revolves around a culture of debate. He leads long, analytic discussions…he seems to spend a lot of time coaxing people along [think health insurance reform]. His governing style, in short, is biased toward complexity…we should be glad that he is governing the way he is… [we should] embrace the complexity. Learn to live with dispassion. (See first attachment).

Brooks has once again captured the essence of the man I knew before he was president and why I trust his judgment now.

Presidential Approval Ratings

Much attention has been paid to President Obama’s so-called “declining approval ratings”. You may recall I have written many times that I believe Obama shares some attributes with presidents Kennedy and Reagan, as well as Robert Kennedy.

Reagan was arguably the most influential Republican president of the last one hundred years. To get some perspective on approval ratings, I thought I’d follow my own admonition to “look it up” and see what the press was saying about him in November 1981, about a year after his election. Here are some quotes, all from the New York Times archives.

In every new Administration there comes a time, after the initial policies have been set out, when so much skepticism and political resistance develops that the president must aggressively defend the credibility of his program and his own leadership. (Hedrick Smith, November 11, 1981)

…the Reagan magic – his ability to charm journalists and politicians – has begun to wear thin. More and more people are looking past the smile and worrying about the substance of issues. And more and more are asking whether the President is able to deal with substance… (Anthony Lewis, November 16, 1981)

Ronald Reagan appears to be falling victim to dashed expectations [“expectations” was the subject of my last Obamagram]…Mr. Reagan came home from his August vacation to witness a September [1981, like 2008] in which “economic activity fell off a cliff,” in the phrase of Edward Yardeni, an economist for E.F. Hutton. “The magnitude of the drop,” he added, “was larger than anyone anticipated.” That could as well have been said of the unwarranted expectations [that word again] the President had created… (Tom Wicker, November 17, 1981)

President Reagan’s popularity has again slipped a little, according to the Gallup Poll, but stands almost exactly where President Carter’s stood four years ago. In a national poll conducted from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, 53 percent of Americans of voting age said they approved of how Mr. Reagan was handling his job as President. (NYT, November 19, 1981) [President Obama’s rating was 50% according to the Gallup Poll taken Nov. 5-8, 2009.]

Isn’t the commentary in 1981 about this now iconic Republican president strikingly similar to the current rhetoric about the new Democratic president?

Now, look at the graphs of the Gallup Polls’ presidential approval ratings in the second attachment. Notice in both the top and bottom graphs how closely Reagan and Obama track, especially after the first sixty days or so.

Why are they so similar? While that is unknowable, one might speculate that it has a good deal to do with the similar economic challenges they inherited. Reagan was confronted with raging inflation, followed by a deepening recession. The unemployment rate in November 1981 was 8.3%. Obama took office following the bursting of a gigantic bubble, with a current unemployment rate at 10.0%.

It is worth noting that President Reagan’s ratings hit a low point (35%) in January 1983, the month after the unemployment rate hit a peak of 10.8%, still the highest since the Great Depression.

It is similarly interesting to know that President Kennedy’s approval ratings were as high as 83% and never got below 56%, despite the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his tiff with U.S. Steel. Of course, the employment rate during his tenure never exceeded 7.1% and was as low as 5.4%.

These comparisons and correlations are worth keeping in mind when we hear breathless reports about our current president’s “declining approval ratings.”

Please pass it on. Back issues are available at http://obamagrams.com.


adobe pdf file Click here to download this article in PDF format.


adobe pdf file Attachment: The Analytic Mode


adobe pdf file Attachment: Presidential Approval Tracker


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