Obama Popular Despite Challenges

By David Zussman (*)

The United States is a great sporting nation and, as a result, Americans like keeping score and handicapping most public events. The performance of their presidents is no exception and, since the early days of the Roosevelt presidency, the media have marked the first 100 days by providing a report card based on their performance.
It is generally acknowledged that no other U.S. president has arrived in office with higher expectations than Barack Obama, and more difficult problems. It is, therefore, not surprising that he has been subjected to a steeper learning curve than his predecessors.
By the time Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, the U.S. financial system was in freefall, the credit markets were becoming unglued, house prices were tumbling, and a half-dozen foreign hotspots required presidential attention. It is difficult to imagine how it could have been more challenging.
Since the 100-day mark is an artificial marker, the White House staff was reluctant to join in on the rating game but their efforts proved futile.
Once they realized that it was going to be impossible to blunt the media’s interest in rating the administration’s performance, some senior staff tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to lower the public’s expectations regarding Obama’s early accomplishments by assigning themselves a B-plus. And finally, the White House embraced the 100-day anniversary, with the president appearing at last month’s 100-day town hall celebration in St. Louis.
At this point, given all of the challenges and difficulties encountered by Obama, he remains a very popular political leader. In fact, according to the Pew Foundation, his personal popularity is higher than the ratings for his individual programs.
However, there is a very wide gap in the perceptions of Democrats and Republicans, suggesting that he might be one of the most polarizing presidents when compared with his predecessors. This may foreshadow future political tensions in the United States.
While not popular with Republicans, Obama appears to have precipitated a dramatic shift in attitude in favour of a greater role for government in the United States and may be giving a new name to the notion of activism.
Most observers attribute the positive rankings to Obama’s personal style. He offers calm leadership that is heavily dependent on teamwork.
It is generally acknowledged that his eclectic team of advisers has two characteristics. First, they represent a wide range of ideological beliefs that appears to have broad appeal, and they seek a consensus among key decision makers before they act. In addition, he prefers to signal his intentions and his overall policy direction, but is reluctant to dictate how the policy will be implemented. At this point, he is perfectly willing to allow Congress to sort out how his policies will be implemented.
Ironically, some observers have noted that his approach to governing is the one used by Ronald Reagan more than a generation ago.
Former Clinton labour secretary, Robert Reich, may have captured best Obama’s “cool” approach to governing when he described the president as being “the serene centre of the cyclone — exuding calm when most Americans are petrified.”
While management style is obviously an important factor, America has also changed its attitudes since George W. Bush was first elected in 2000. The American population is aging and appears more predisposed to accept an increased role for government.
Given the obvious failure of the Bush administration to buffer Americans from the impact of unfettered markets, it is not surprising that Obama has been very effective in changing the conversation with Americans and bringing in a new paradigm about governing that includes a broader role for government.
The swine flu epidemic that is sweeping across the world is a good example of how events can upset the best plans of newly elected governments. The American political system replaces its senior managers after each change of administration but this time it has been severely handicapped during this crisis period.
More significant, the epidemic has also exposed the weaknesses of the American transition process that requires it to replace the top 7,000 public servants.
The complex vetting procedures in addition to the generally cumbersome appointment process has created a backlog of appointments that is undermining the government’s ability to respond to its various challenges.
For example, at this point, the Obama administration has still to fill around 15 senior executive health jobs, with a similar number of vacancies at the Treasury department.
One observer noted that “we’re setting up a system where the only people who qualify to work in government are the ones who never actually left government.”
Trapped between retaining the former Bush-appointed administrators or following a lengthy search process to find suitable replacements, the government remains leaderless in too many important departments.
While the first 100 days are not a very good predictor of what’s to come, it’s clear that the public is currently content with Obama’s performance.
He has introduced a new vocabulary and style to governing and he evidently understands Prof. Drew Westen’s observation that citizens want to hear values-based and emotionally compelling narratives from their political leaders.
As in Canada, Americans want to be reassured that their leadership can feel their pain and is working in their interests.

(*) David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.