The Nation's Pulse

Hooked on a Feeling

Barack Obama's poll numbers reflect the triumph of hope over experience.

By 5.1.09

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The way Americans responded to Barack Obama's first 100 days in office is either admirable in its optimism or worrisome in its irrationality. The latest Pew Research Center poll reported that 61 percent of those surveyed approved of Obama's job performance and even more -- 66 percent -- believe Obama's policies will improve economic conditions. Likewise, nearly the same number believes his policies will reduce the deficit long-term.

Looking at the numbers, it's hard to see why. Leave aside the various faux pas at home and abroad: the unplayable DVDs for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the mistranslated "reset" button in Russia, the difficulties in putting together a tax-compliant Cabinet, and an amazingly high percentage of Vice President Joe Biden's utterances. The economic statistics don't look much different than they did under former President Bush, when everyone was clamoring for change.

The unemployment rate has reached 11 percent in California and 8.5 percent nationally, both recent highs. Obama's budget actually increases the annual budget deficit beyond what he inherited to Bush and adds $9.3 trillion in cumulative deficits by $9.3 trillion, as estimated by the Democratic-run Congressional Budget Office. The markets' responses to the Obama administration's economic pronouncements have been shaky at best. And it is still far from certain that hundreds of billions being spent on stimulus and bailouts have worked.

Obama has only been in the White House a few months, but he is the one who set high expectations high. Yet he doesn't seem to face much pressure to deliver. "Change is coming," he said on the campaign trail amidst applause. "The time for change is now." Now that he is in office, the happy crowds believe change has come.

This kind of camaraderie explains why another recent Pew Research Center survey discovered there's a 61-point gap between Republicans and Democrats about the way Obama's doing his job, 88 percent to 27 percent and why "Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades." Still, analysis of past presidents' polling results 100 days in reveal the same exuberance: Both Bush and Clinton were still flying pretty high that first spring.

In his most recent column, Dick Morris describes this honeymoon phase between country and President, husband and wife. "It would be a disaster for her life if she decides that she really doesn't like her husband.…It will be a while before she walks out the door or even comes to terms with her own doubts, but it is probably inevitable that she will."

But long-suffering wives are reluctant to walk away. Americans may lack the ability to see beyond what his actions have wrought and cling to him because of nothing more than the good feelings he evokes. If that's the case, it could be a long four years of puzzling polling. We'll see if the feeling of hope trumps the desire for real change.

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.