What Happened to the Hopemonger?

What Happened to the Hopemonger?

By David Paul Kuhn - February 23, 2009

Here's a fact that will probably shock you: Americans today have the same level of confidence in President Obama as they had in George W. Bush after his first month in office. According to Gallup, Obama's public approval rating currently stands at 63 percent, only a point above George W. Bush in late February 2001.

Few modern presidents have been greeted with such lofty expectations as Obama. That Obama now stands where Bush did eight years ago, on the eve of his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, serves as a reminder of how quickly the demands of the presidency can sober even the most talented politicians.

Obama's popularity today, by Gallup's measure, is a few points higher than Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan at the infancy of their presidencies. He precisely matches George H.W. Bush. And excluding Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson who took office amid tragedy, and therefore earned staggeringly high early approval, Obama is notably shy of other new presidents. Jimmy Carter and John Kennedy had more than seven out of 10 Americans behind them at the close of their first February in office.

This is the stage Obama takes tomorrow. The hardest legislative battles are before him and the luster that greeted him on Inauguration Day is now behind him.

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It's long been said that presidents are only as powerful as their public perception. Already, President Obama has lost a measure of his hopefulness at the moment he most requires it. The public seems to have noticed. And there are some in Washington who speculate that Obama's standing could still worsen.

"Obama is in a much weaker position than his poll numbers suggest and I think that the whole thing could collapse on him sooner rather than later," Doug Schoen, one of Bill Clinton's former pollsters, said.

That remains to be seen. But even at this early stage, Obama has already assumed a good deal of risk. With his first major legislative accomplishment, a $787 billion dollar economic stimulus bill, he has taken ownership of an economy that could quickly worsen.

Obama's potential legislative achievements ahead will be directly tied to his popularity, which has ebbed a couple points in recent weeks. The portion of the public disapproving of the president has also doubled over that period, from 12 percent to 24 percent.

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Just last year, President Bush was unable to rally his own party around his bailout legislation because he no longer carried with him the perception of public support. There was a similar impasse a couple years earlier as Bush pushed for immigration reform.

Obama's challenges are far greater than Bush's at the outset of his presidency, as are his objectives. Obama's domestic agenda is the most ambitious since Lyndon Johnson.

President Johnson, however, reminds us of what can go wrong. LBJ aspired to be the greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt. But he escalated a war without end and lost control of the times. Obama's fate is not likely that of Johnson's. But despite the allusions to Roosevelt, comparisons to FDR may be no more apt.

Obama seems however not to be discussed in these sober terms. In fact the one person who could use less sober words, the president himself, seems too solemn in his first weeks.

Obama scoffed during the 2008 campaign at some in Washington who considered him, in Obama's words, a "hope-monger." But this is not Obama's problem of late. The Democratic president is not offering Carter's malaise. But now some wonder whether the president is helping matters by repeatedly comparing the nation's hard times to its worst economic catastrophe, the Great Depression.

The unemployment rate remains a third of what it was in the first year of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. FDR inherited a stock market that was 75 percent below its 1929 high. It took decades for the market to return to that high. Obama is right to worry about what more could happen, but he's hardly helping the markets when he repeatedly harkens to its most horrible era.

Moreover, it never helps a player who is in a slump to keep talking about it. So it is with the nation as well. There are now increasingly calls for Obama to move toward the more convincing and sanguine rhetoric of Roosevelt and Reagan. Last week, the president who came from a place called Hope (Arkansas) asked for more soaring words from the candidate of hope. Bill Clinton praised Obama's realism, but he added to ABC News that he "would like" Obama to conclude his speeches "by saying that he is hopeful and completely convinced we're gonna come through this." Clinton's talent as president was not merely his optimistic words, but that he conveyed a reassurance as well. Obama must do no less, especially since some of his ebb in popularity may be partially rooted in his more somber tone.

FDR owned this sense of optimism. His inaugural address framed fear as the antagonist with the famous line, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He spoke of overcoming the Great Depression in war-like terms, requesting similarly broad executive powers. He said what mattered was to "try something." Obama has taken that lesson to heart. Yet FDR was able to do so, in part, because he kept the country believing that he could.

"You have a lot of people invested in this guy succeeding," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio of Obama. Fabrizio believes its "always better to under promise and over deliver."

That may be true when it comes to legislation and predicting public support, but Schoen argues that a president must over deliver on the big picture. Obama's restrained optimism, in Schoen's view, is not helping a president already undermined by early mishaps, such as his problems with several cabinet nominations.

"Thirty days after Obama [took office] the Democrats face much more vulnerability than I ever thought was Possible," Schoen said.

Obama came into office with unrivaled good will. Now his early Bush-like level of popularity reminds his White House that goodwill can only do so much.

More so, that Obama remains slightly more popular than Reagan, after his first month, also reminds the White House that a president can take on a lofty aura that sometimes eludes him early on. In January 1981, Reagan inherited the same unemployment rate as Obama. Reagan though conveyed in words and tone Americans indigenous optimism, as Obama still must.

Both Reagan and Obama began their presidencies with less than one in five Americans satisfied with the direction of the country. At the same time, like when Reagan first took office, eight in 10 Americans today remain "satisfied with the way things are going in" their "own personal life." Recently, the Pew Research Center found that 46 percent of Americans believe "the nation's economy will improve" in the next year. By comparison, 59 percent of Americans believe their personal finances will improve.

In other words, the people today seem more optimistic than their president. They haven't given up hope, and Obama's burden tomorrow is to demonstrate that neither has he.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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