“Why do you think President Obama’s job rating is falling, even though the economy is recovering?” the interviewer asked.
It’s a fair question, even though the economy declined 2.9 percent in the first quarter, even though most jobs created in June were part-time, and even though labor force participation remains low.
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The fact is that the economy is growing, however slowly; jobs are being created, and the unemployment rate is heading down toward what economists consider full employment. And still, the president’s job rating languishes.
What’s wrong with the question is an assumption embedded within it, that what voters seek most from government and political officeholders is economic growth. I think there’s something they value even more: the maintenance of order.
This isn’t what I was taught in political science classes. Political scientists who had grown up in the 1930s Depression taught that politics was about “who gets what, when, and how.”
Operating on that assumption, political scientists developed rules that explained past election outcomes as a function of economic variables — how much the economy grew in the second quarter of the election year, for example.
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Those rules generally worked pretty well at predicting future elections — until they didn’t.
What they don’t explain very well are the political upheavals that come when voters perceive that the nation and the world are in disarray. Americans, blessed with a mostly happy history, tend to take fundamental order for granted. They recoil and rebel when things spin out of control.
Example: The political scientists taught that the big shift toward Democrats in 1874 was a response to the financial panic of 1873. Sort of like the Great Depression.
But further study convinces me it was a rebellion against Ulysses Grant’s military occupation of the South to protect blacks’ rights. Voters tired of violence voted for the anti-black Democrats, who held House majorities for 14 of the next 20 years and won the popular vote for president in five of six presidential elections in those years.
Or consider Republicans’ “back to normalcy” victory in 1920. This was a response to disorder at home (dizzying inflation and depression, waves of strikes, terrorist bombings) and abroad (Communist revolutions, continued fighting in Russia and the Middle East, rejection of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations).
Closer to our times, Jimmy Carter was rejected in 1980 as the nation faced not only stagflation (inflation-plus-recession) at home but also an “arc of instability” abroad.
Americans, unlike voters in many other countries, demand the maintenance of order in the world as well in their own nation. From the early days of the republic, there has been an unspoken awareness that what happens in the world affects their own lives.
In the 19th century, American merchants went out into the Mediterranean, American whalers to the Pacific, and American missionaries to China and the Middle East.
American troops followed. The Navy and Marines went after the Barbary pirates on the shores of Tripoli. American gunboats opened Japan to the world in 1854 and were stationed on rivers in China from the 1840s to the 1930s.
Which brings us to today. Many things seem to be spinning out of control. Important government agencies are malfunctioning — the Internal Revenue Service, Veterans Affairs, etc. Obamacare is producing higher health care premiums and is on track to deliver more.
Tens of thousands of underage (and some not-so-underage) Central American illegal immigrants are streaming across the Rio Grande, and the government is flying them to parts unknown — and sending 38 back to their home countries.
Abroad, things are even worse. In Syria, there is violent civil war; and next door in Iraq, terrorists are proclaiming a caliphate. Israel has been forced to launch a ground attack on the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza.
A Malaysian airliner cruising at 33,000 feet over Ukraine has been brought down by a rocket, probably by thugs armed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The president, in-between fundraisers, has time for a photo-op playing pool in Colorado, but not for one on the border. He has time for only two sentences on the airliner shoot-down before a photo-op and two more fundraisers. First things first.
Not everything spinning out of control is the president’s fault. But his responses so far have confirmed voters’ sense that the nation and the world are in disarray.
This, not economic sluggishness, is why he and his party are in trouble.
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