Popularity

Once again, President Bush has affirmed that he doesn’t care that everyone hates him. Ezra responds:

I’ve made this argument before, but there are generally a couple democratic checks on a president’s power: his desire to retain political capital with Congress in order to pass legislation; his need to retain popularity in order more effectively advocate for his agenda; and his wish to improve the fortunes of his party and ensure the ascension of his vice-president. They’re how we ensure that presidents remain responsive to the voting public between elections.

Bush was constrained by none of them. He gave up on passing legislation through Congress. He had no designated successor. And he evinced no interest in the fortunes of his party. Indeed, he embraced this descent into unpopularity, eschewing even a hint of compliance with public preferences for withdrawal, or even drawdown, in Iraq. All of which meant he’s been completely free. Save for impeachment, he was utterly liberated from the natural democratic checks on executive behavior. There was nothing that congressional Democrats or the electorate could take from him that he had not already taken from himself.

I think this is all right, but it’s also true that popularity is extremely important to governing. The reason you don’t push a deeply unpopular initiative, say, privatizing social security, even if you think it’s a really good idea isn’t because you’re a wimpy girly-man who obsesses over polls, it’s because you’re probably not going to get it passed Congress. The opposition party has little reason to go along with you, and your own members, especially in the House where they have to be re-elected every 2 years, are unlikely to want to take a very unpopular stance. So the end result to all of this is that you identify yourself with a very unpopular idea, and get nothing for it. That’s not good politics by any measure.

The Bill Clinton example, however, skews all of this. The problem with Clinton wasn’t that he was too responsive to public opinion, but rather that the uniquely hostile Republican Congress made it impossible for Clinton to accomplish much of anything on “big” issues, no matter how popular he was or how much public opinion was on his side. So what you were left with was a President taking “small” issues that he likely didn’t care much about one way or the other but had broad public support and making a fairly big deal out of them in order to project an air of getting things accomplished. But as is often the case with Clinton, the problem wasn’t that Clinton was a bad President, or an evil Centrist, per se so much as it was the result of a very hostile opposition Congress that had no interest in working with the President whatsoever.

And it will be interesting to see how the effect of populatrity plays out with Obama. Right now Obama enjoys pretty broad popularity, largely driven by the fact that he’s not George Bush, and you’re seeing a certain amount of reluctance in Congressional Republican circles to attack Obama too directly. But how well that will hold once the governing begins, and how much of an effect it will have on Senate Republicans, remains to be seen.