Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Fleeting Glory

For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.
The wisdom of General George Patton's observation is becoming all the more apparent as we observe present events. A poll-obsessed media has created a new meme for its broadcasts: they seek to promote the idea that Barack Obama maintains the unshakable faith of the American people. To be sure, if you have watched more than five minutes of any news program recently, you quickly got to the part where the anchor happily chirps something to the effect of, "Despite the bad economy, Barack Obama's popularity remains high, with a majority of Americans believing that he is doing a good job."

While that largely remains the case, sources as diverse as Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, Rasmussen Reports and the Pew Research Center put the notion that all is well with Obama's polling numbers to lie. Of particular interest are data from Rasmussen which show that while the President has a 56 percent approval rating, the gap between those who "Strongly Approve" (37 percent) and those who "Strongly Disapprove" (32 percent) is at its narrowest point since the inauguration, separated by a mere five percentage points. It is also interesting to note that during March, Obama's approval has ranged from 60 percent to 56 percent, while in January it ranged from 60 to 65 percent.

For its part, the Pew data are nearly as damning. In their survey of over 1,300 adults, Pew found that Obama's approval rating has slipped from 64 percent in February to 59 percent at present,
"as a growing number of Americans see him listening more to his party’s liberals than to its moderates and many voice opposition to some of his key economic proposals." During the same period, Obama's disapproval number has gone from 17 percent to 26 percent.

What many would find curious is the fact that - according to a WSJ op-ed co-written by pollster Scott Rasmussen and former Clinton pollster Douglas E. Schoen - Obama's numbers are in decline and he is in fact
"below where George W. Bush was in an analogous period in 2001." (I do not find it surprising that most of the chirpy network anchors fail to mention this fact while crowing about Obama's popularity.) To their credit, Schoen and Rasmussen go into some detail as to what is behind the precipitous declines in Obama's numbers.
Overall, Rasmussen Reports shows a 56%-43% approval, with a third strongly disapproving of the president's performance. This is a substantial degree of polarization so early in the administration. Mr. Obama has lost virtually all of his Republican support and a good part of his Independent support, and the trend is decidedly negative.

A detailed examination of presidential popularity after 50 days on the job similarly demonstrates a substantial drop in presidential approval relative to other elected presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries. The reason for this decline most likely has to do with doubts about the administration's policies and their impact on peoples' lives.

There is also a clear sense in the polling that taxes will increase for all Americans because of the stimulus, notwithstanding what the president has said about taxes going down for 95% of Americans. Close to three-quarters expect that government spending will grow under this administration.

The concerns expressed by those included in Rasmussen's polling run parallel to those cited in other places. Doubtless, there is considerable angst about the economy, with Rasmussen and Schoen citing Gallup polling to the effect that "[s]eventy-eight percent are worried about inflation growing, and 69% say they are worried about the increasing role of the government in the U.S. economy."

So while the "Mighty Casey" Obama has not struck out entirely with the public, there is distress in Mudville.

And, by Hermene Hartman's lights, "[a]ll is not well in River City."

For those unfamiliar with Hermene Hartman and her relevance to Obama's popularity, I'll drop a few clues. Ms. Hartman is the publisher of one of the most widely read weekly newspapers in Chicago's black community. N'DIGO boasts the nation's largest African American newspaper circulation, so it goes without saying that Ms. Hartman holds considerable sway over the black community's thinking. That said, when N'DIGO prints a Publisher's Page article pointing out Obama's slights towards his most loyal constituency, it's a big deal.
In the black community, there is much discussion about President Obama's performance and commitment. It is an honest discussion. On his campaign trail, we saw the civil rights people ignored; we saw ministers disregarded; and we saw [talk show host] Tavis Smiley exiled for raising the question about the absence of a black agenda from the Obama platform.

President Obama represents black America's proudest moment and America's "Aha!" moment. His ratings are high and he still appears to be on the campaign trail with daily major announcements. Recent ratings show he out-polled Jesus! Wait a minute, everybody. Jesus he is not.

Constructive criticisms bear airing. There is only one black cabinet member. Black press has been totally disregarded and black press received little to no advertising from the campaign coffers.

Beyond her own commentary, when Hartman cites a letter written by a prominent African American professor - Steven Rogers of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management - that raises concerns that Obama has demonstrated through "actions, snubs, insults and inactions [sic] that President Obama has no plans to do anything special... to help black businesses or the general black community as a whole," it's clear that something is amiss. (Rogers was similarly skeptical of the Obama administration during a recent conference sponsored by Kellogg.)

As stated elsewhere, it was my sense some time ago "that
those who are in for the rudest awakening [vis-a-vis the Obama presidency] will be African Americans." There is already a palpable dissatisfaction among what Hartman describes as "the earliest and most faithful Obama supporters." It is now clear that the sentiments expressed in Professor Rogers' letter have gained currency among these African American strivers. To say that Barack Obama is in an awkward position relative to the black community is to understate the problem. While he remains a powerful symbol for all Americans, particularly but certainly not exclusively blacks, Obama will be held to a lofty standard by his African American constituents; Hartman phrases it as blacks expecting "fulfillment."

Far be it from me to kick a woman when she is down, but the "fulfillment" that Ms. Hartman is expecting from Obama will never come. The "closure in the gaps - education, employment, housing and business" for which she devoutly wishes will never come from the actions of any one man, particularly a man as meagerly gifted in anything beyond speechmaking (and fake indignation.) It appears that Ms. Hartman and the "Day One" people are learning the same bitter lesson about this man that Americans of all races and walks of life are learning. Namely, that while candidates are as good as their last promise, presidents are only as good as their accomplishments. And as that lesson is being appreciated, Obama's poll numbers decline accordingly.

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