Posted by: Jeff | November 12, 2010

The Irrelevance of Presidential Fighting Spirit

A few days ago, Joe referenced this op-ed by Frank Rich over at The New York Times, which attributed the Democrats’ mid-term “shellacking” to a confused message, bubble mentality, and general lack of “fighting spirit” (or something like that) on the part of President Obama. The core of Rich’s critique came at the end, with an invocation of history:

In the 1946 midterms, the unpopular and error-prone rookie president Harry Truman, buffeted by a different set of economic dislocations, watched his party lose both chambers of Congress (including 54 seats in the House) to a G.O.P. that then moved steadily to the right in its determination to cut government spending and rip down the New Deal safety net. Two years after this Democratic wipeout, despite a hostile press and a grievously divided party, Truman roared back, in part by daring the Republican Congress to enact its reactionary plans. He won against all odds, as David McCullough writes in “Truman,” because “there was something in the American character that responded to a fighter.”

This passage bugged me, because that quote from McCullough explaining Truman’s political resuscitation just seemed incredibly substanceless and hand-wavy. I mean, how do you measure whether someone is a “fighter?” How do you measure the American people’s response to that status? How do you even begin to define your terms in any sort of objective manner?

Needless to say, I was skeptical. But digging into it would’ve required some research, and that sort of historical data gathering isn’t my bag, and I have a life, so I let it go.

Happily, there are some very skilled and intelligent political scientists in the blogosphere these days, and this sort of thing is their bag. So it wasn’t long before Brendan Nyhan spotted Rich’s column (via Jon Chait) — also noting that the same historical analogy and explanation has been bandied about in other quarters — and proceeded with the requisite dismantling:

Unfortunately, the dramatic narrative of Truman’s victory and what it tells us about “the American character” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. As James Campbell pointed out in 2004 (gated), Truman’s comeback was fueled by “sizzling” economic growth:

Until recently, for instance, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) figured that GDP in the first half of 1948 (leading into the Truman-Dewey contest) was growing at a healthy 4.1% rate. The BEA’s latest series indicates that this greatly understated growth at the outset of the 1948 campaign. The BEA now figures that the economy was growing at a sizzling 6.8%, a revision that helps explain Truman’s miraculous comeback…

Truman actually enjoyed three consecutive quarters of rapid growth in the run-up to the election… In short, while the idea of the underdog Truman fighting against the “Do Nothing Congress” sounds inspiring, the success of his re-election campaign was driven by the state of the economy. Despite all the counter-intuitive hype, the same logic will apply to Obama.

Read the whole thing, which comes complete with charts.

I remain fascinated by the tenacity with which people cling to the idea that presidents (or any politician, really) can alter their political fate by changing their tone, strategy, or by discovering within their character previously unknown reserves of courage/gumption/whatever. Especially amongst top-tier reporters and commentators like Rich, who really ought to know better.

We have plenty of data at this point demonstrating the overwhelming influence of the economy on how Americans vote. Political scientists have been able to put together predictive models of national voting behavior with an accuracy range of two percent — and all they need to know is the state of the economy and who’s the incumbent. Within two percent. Just with those two factors. And here’s some political science work showing that, no matter what the circumstances, voters always hold the president and the president’s party responsible for the economy.

So what gives? I think there are two explanations. The first is that there’s a lot of what you could call “Me the People” thinking going on here. Rich’s column could fairly summed up by saying, “Frank Rich is unhappy with how Obama has operated. He then assumes that what disappointed him personally must also be what disappointed tens of millions of Americans.” This is understandably human logic, I guess. But I think the flaw in assuming all voters hold to the same priorities and analysis you do should be obvious.

Even more importantly, people who pay attention to politics — be they the Frank Rich’s of the world or amateur bloggers like Joe and I — tend to forget that we’re really weird. Most Americans do not share our political consumption habits: Obama’s 2010 State of the Union speech nabbed 48 million viewers, which is around 15 percent of the country. And that was a high point. Most presidential speeches and events are viewed by far smaller numbers. You can hardly expect a president’s fighting spirit to have much of an effect on their electoral fate — or that of their party — if no one’s bothering to pay attention. (Just to pound the point home, here’s an episode of “The Breakdown” going over the historical evidence that presidential speeches have little-to-no effect on public opinion.)

The second explanation is deeper and more philosophic in nature. Basically, we’re Americans. And part of being American is being deeply, deeply committed to the idea that, through fighting spirit, ambition, skill, intelligence, virtue, and strength of character, an individual can alter their circumstances and life outcomes. And we believe this applies to presidents as much as to the millions of anonymous souls trying to fight their way out of poverty. To quote the poem by William Ernest Henley, we Americans believe that we are all “master of my fate.” So we instinctively recoil from the idea that presidents, in terms of their individual initiative and agency, simply have no control over how the electorate will respond to them.

Now, I happen to think this belief in the power of individual agency is largely busllshit across the board. I think in all areas of life, outcomes are primarily determined by large and impersonal structural forces over which individuals have no control. And in the presidential realm, at least, we have the data to prove it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: