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Obama and Reagan: The Likability Factor

Obama and Reagan: The Likability Factor

By Lou Cannon - September 14, 2012


Stuart K. Spencer, the grizzled political strategist who helped Ronald Reagan become governor of California and president of the United States, believes Barack Obama holds an edge over Mitt Romney that he compares to the advantage Reagan often had over his opponents.

“It’s the likability factor,” said Spencer, a Romney supporter. “Many people think that Obama hasn’t delivered, but they still like him. I’d rather have a beer with him than Romney. Wouldn’t you?”

Leaving aside the fact that Romney doesn’t drink anything stronger than lemonade, Spencer’s gut view has statistical support from the time-tested Gallup Poll. Before the Democratic National Convention, Gallup’s editors observed that Obama’s personal favorability was consistently higher than his job approval rating. The day Gallup issued its report (Sept. 6), Obama’s favorability was 53 percent, compared to an approval rating of 45 percent.

According to the pollster, Obama’s low approval ratings explain why the president and his challenger have been tied for months. This week, helped by a convention bounce, Obama spurted to a six-point lead in the latest Gallup survey. His low approval ratings nonetheless keep his re-election in a historical “danger zone,” according to Gallup.

Polls taken during the two-term Reagan presidency did not make a sharp distinction between “favorability” and “approval.” It’s no secret, however, that Reagan was often more popular than his policies, as is suggested by the fact that he usually ran ahead of his poll numbers at the ballot box.

But polls, even when they’re as good as Gallup’s, don’t tell the full story. Spencer believes “likability” is an inexplicable quality possessed by only a handful of politicians. “When they like you, it gives you running room,” said Spencer, who recalls numerous times when the public gave Reagan the benefit of a doubt for a dubious remark.

The same could be said of Obama. He’s aloof -- his critics say “arrogant” -- but, like Reagan, Obama is skillful at spoofing the opposition. Obama recently quipped that Republicans are so enamored of tax cutting they believe it can improve one’s sex life. Reagan said he wasn’t worried about the deficit because it was big enough to take care of itself.

Still, as a journalist who covered Reagan’s political career and wrote five books about him, I confess to unease about the likability standard. During Reagan’s presidency, the observation that he was likable was usually a put-down, as in Washington insider Clark Clifford’s crack that Reagan was an “amiable dunce.” Two decades later Howell Raines wrote that “Clifford was charged in a banking scandal and the dunce ended the Cold War.”

Reagan was a transformational as well as likable president. He pledged to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget, carrying out the first two promises at the expense of the third. In his second term, he negotiated effectively with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, reducing the threat of nuclear war and helping lay the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s demise. Retrospectively, the American people in Gallup polls rank him with Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy as the greatest of presidents.

Obama hasn’t reached such lofty heights and he realized that Americans are disappointed that he hasn’t done better at alleviating unemployment or reviving the housing market. But the “likability” of Obama can also be a put-down. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, derided by Republicans as “Obamacare” and advocated and signed into law by Obama, is a significant achievement, like it or not. When it comes to health care, Obama succeeded where other presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton tried and failed.

The election, however, is more than 50 days away and as my editor at The Washington Post used to say, 24 hours is a long time in the life of a politician. Compared to 2008, there are 800,000 fewer Democratic voters in the eight closest swing states listed by RealClearPolitics and only 100,000 fewer Republican voters. Spencer notes that Obama is dependent on a high turnout of the minority and young voters who voted heavily for him four years ago.

“The election is Obama’s to lose,” said Spencer. “But he hasn’t won it yet.” 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.


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