Cabinet Snafus Don’t Matter

by John Sides on February 9, 2009 · 6 comments

in Political science

Maybe we’ve heard our last of Cabinet appointees who haven’t paid their taxes. Maybe we haven’t. In any case, the outpouring of news and commentary devoted to this issue is vastly out of proportion with what it signifies over the long term. None of this will ultimately affect Obama’s standing or his re-election prospects or much else of consequence.

First, Obama’s approval rating seems fine, as of now, belying the “skepticism” that Maureen Dowd imputed to “Americans”:

Betrayed by their bankers and leaders, Americans were desperate to trust someone when they made Barack Obama president. His debut has left them skeptical about his willingness to smack down those who would flout his high standards or waste our money.

And belying Howard Kurtz:

I think journalists were looking at the inside game—how many votes were lined up for confirmation—while shortchanging the outside game, which is how badly this was playing in the country.

When you hear about how something “was playing in the country,” and there isn’t a poll in sight, you know that someone is making stuff up.

The key points are these:

  • How many Americans really know what’s going on with Geithner, Daschle, et al.? Who’s following these stories that closely? The relatively small fraction of people who follow politics on a daily basis.
  • And most of these people already have pretty fixed ideas about Obama. Hence it’s hardly any surprise that Obama’s poll numbers didn’t dip suddenly with the news of Geithner’s or Daschle’s tax problems. Instead, his rating has steadily ticked down a few points since inauguration, likely as some Republicans have changed their minds (a trend that should continue).[1] It hardly seems that “the country” or “Americans” are really all that exercised about this.
  • Rarely does a presidency or a presidential election actually turn on malfeasance. It takes a scandal of pretty large proportions—Watergate, Iran/contra—to affect a president’s public standing. Even the parade of Clinton-era scandals didn’t affect his approval rating all that much. And trust in government went up! The public just doesn’t weight minor scandals that much, if at all. And scandals about Cabinet nominees not paying taxes are minor indeed.

But isn’t Obama disappointing all those people who were “desperate to trust someone” and voted for him hoping for cleaner government? The problem is that’s not why most people voted for him. Voting behavior hinged much more on partisanship and the economy than on Obama’s rhetoric about a cleaner government. Major scandals aside, that’s how presidents are evaluated.

fn1. After I wrote this, Mark Blumenthal posted some evidence. The small downward shift in Obama’s approval is being driven mostly by Republicans.

{ 6 comments }

Lee Sigelman February 9, 2009 at 4:06 pm

John: I didn’t realize that you had been Obama’s campaign manager. Perhaps a cabinet post for you is in the offing.

John Sides February 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

I’d like to think it’s in the offing. I’ve been refusing to borrow Towncars from rich guys for a long, long time. Surely that’s worth something.

Joel February 9, 2009 at 4:15 pm

what you’re saying makes sense, but is there ultimately no impact of giving the partisans for the other side something to talk about?

obama partisans may not have voted for him because of the “change” mantra, but there is sure a lot of noise now coming from the other side about how he isn’t so different after all. are you suggesting that handing the right a talking point they can wield ad nauseam will have no long term effect beyond the headache it’s already giving me?

Shag from Brookline February 9, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Pundits have developed the syndrome of TV weathermen embellishing a few basic facts to appear as celebrities. TV weathermen fill up execessive time with their graphics and speedtalk and the pundits come in with their 750 words too frequently. The pundits check on each other frequently, with their moistened fingers in the air to determine the direction to go in.

As for TV weathermen, I blame the late George Carlin with his “Hippy Dippy Weatherman” routine that has served as a guide for their performances. As for the pundits, I blame cable and talk radio with all their competition 24/7. Hopefully Schumpeter’s “creative destructionism” will come into play. Maybe the next bubble is the pundit bubble. Stick a pin in it.

John Sides February 10, 2009 at 8:18 am

Joel, that is what I’m saying, more or less. In short, lots of pundits and politicians talk about lots of stuff, but that doesn’t mean that voters are paying attention or that, ultimately, it will affect how they think.

Joel February 10, 2009 at 1:20 pm

well, you’re the scientist(s). but i am having trouble shaking my intuition that:

a) the “median” voter this time was someone attracted to obama because of the change mantra, and

b) the constant buzzsaw of negativity surrounding his first 100 days will bring that median voter back to reality such that

c) their loyalty to obama, in four years for instance, is not a foregone conclusion.

of course, this will all be difficult to gauge, considering the likelihood that the economy will still be in the tank in 3 years (thus trumping any of this other noise and submarining obama for an entirely different reason).

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