Obama: The temptation to coast on his legacy must be overwhelming - Macleans.ca

Obama: The temptation to coast on his legacy must be overwhelming



Barack Obama is way more popular than any of his predecessors were at the point in their administration when they hadn’t done anything either: 82% of Americans approve of the way he’s handling the transition, compared to 65% for W. in 2000 and 67% for Bill Clinton in 1992. This leads to a level of optimism that would be unfashionable if it weren’t so widespread: while 59% think the economy is getting worse, 59% expect it to be better in a year, which in my mind conjures an image of an economy like an Escher print, monks resolutely striding downstairs to get to a point above where they began. This is ominous. Things almost never turn out well when public opinion is shaped like an undergraduate poster sale.

But in the meantime, these numbers are illustrative of a handy little point. Recall that Obama won barely over half the popular vote, and concede with me, if you will, that a President-Elect John McCain would by now be getting perhaps 60% or 70% approval for his own transition behaviour, if he had managed to get himself put in charge of a transition. (I made up that number out of nothing, but I don’t think it’s wildly implausible.) That leaves you with perhaps a third of the U.S. electorate that is willing to like any president in the absence of solid reasons why they shouldn’t. I think you’d get the same sort of number up here.

The point I’m making should probably be so obvious it’s not worth repeating, but it’s tended to get lost in the recent hyper-partisan environment: most people aren’t partisan. So most participants in political debates, being strongly engaged in one camp or another, have a hard time figuring out how regular people think. We saw a lot of that during what Colleague Potter calls The Madness, when people who simply don’t like Stephen Harper were prepared to believe the electorate would swallow any alternative to Harper, no matter how rickety — and when Harper made his own missteps out of an inability to understand that his animosity toward Liberals actually isn’t broadly shared across the electorate. A large part of the public was watching it all dispassionately as it unfolded. Distractedly too, of course, and often with only a shaky understanding of the constitutional niceties involved, to be sure. But mostly people are prepared to cut the prime minister, whoever the prime minister is, a lot of slack; and also willing to consider alternatives if the alternatives made any sense, if they held together logically and organizationally. Which, I’m afraid, the proposed coalition doesn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with fierce partisan engagement. Clashes of ideas are healthy. But combatants would do well to remember that the voting audience isn’t nearly as caught up in us-and-them self-identification as the combatants are.


Obama: The temptation to coast on his legacy must be overwhelming

  1. the Liberals started it.

  2. Did not did not did not.

  3. haha.

    hey, listen, not only are most people I know not partisan, they didn’t even know who Iggy was.

  4. “Harper made his own missteps out of an inability to understand that his animosity toward Liberals actually isn’t broadly shared across the electorate”

    Except, of course, in Alberta where Harper has spent most of his life, cut his political teeth and developed his political ideals. A surprising majority of voters here still want to blame Trudeau for everything and bemoan the NEP 20 years after the fact. You’ll even hear it from voters who didn’t even live in Alberta in the early 80s or worse yet…..weren’t even born yet!

  5. But seriously, is it that people don’t care or they approve of middle of the road staff appointments and hate outreach in speaking gigs?

    • “hate outreach”

      Now that’s a euphemism I haven’t heard used by the MSM — I’ll look for it in 2009.

      • Hopefully there will be little opportunity to see it in print – but I still want a royalty!

  6. Ha! I haven’t completely lost my innocent naivete after all, because I think a lot of it has to do with the concept that the country voted for him, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the country must be right. At least, until the new Prime Minister does some completely bone-headed thing that you were afraid he’d do when you didn’t vote for him in the first place.

    I definitely felt this when Harper was voted in the first time, and even a twinge or two of it this latest time. But that was harder to tell since he made the bone-headed move almost immediately.

    • A minority of Canadians voted for a Conservative candidate. In fact, as far as I know, only one of my acquaintances fits into that category. However, I digress. I think that those of us who did not vote for the present government had some slight hope that it might work for a while, because we thought (or at least I thought) that the Conservatives would have to be careful and choose a middle course. It didn’t work that way.

      But, even when things were at their worst, and maybe they still are, not as many people paid attention as I had hoped.

      People talk about two things, or maybe only one big thing, the economy and how it affects them. I’ve also heard mutterings that there had better not be another election and that all politicians should get down to work and stop being such idiots.

  7. I read this blog for sanity, and sanity I recieve. Thank you.

    On a side note, my friend and I were talking today about how Obama already has a zillion top priorities. Solve global economy? Priority #1. Solve poverty? Priority numero uno. Solve American foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan? Priority Supremo Maximus. Solve middle east peace? Priority Zenith.

    You know who Obama sounds more and more like? The priority stallion and great expectations master himself, Mr. Paul Martin. At least in my opinion, that comparison is not a positive one. Set the bar too high, and not even Hercules can get over it.

    • On a side note to the side note: According to the Stephen Marche in Saturday’s Toronto Star PMPM was the “greatest public servant since the Pearson era.”

    • Better to set the bar high then to lay under a low one- marilyn7

    • I am an Obama fan, but you are right about the need to set expectations low. My only hope is that Obama will be able to change the language and tone of politics in the US. This has to be achieved first before any real and meaningful policy changes are possible.

  8. Riley,

    Interesting observation… but will Obama ever set the bar as high as George W. Bush?

    “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

    whoa, heavy trip.

  9. I agree that most Canadians, and Americans, are not intensely partisan. I know a couple of people who voted Green last election and they were threatening to vote Con next time if Coalition took over because they believed what the Coalition attempted to do wasn’t quite cricket.

    I think Obama’s numbers are so high because many Repubs are satisfied with his choices for cabinet. His foreign affairs team is about as good as Repubs could hope for and the economics team is not entirely dire. I also think a lot of the fighting spirit has been knocked out of Repubs because Bush is behaving/spending like a socialist/liberal and it’s not much fun calling someone else that when your side is just as bad.

    I am interested to see how fast Obama’s numbers crater when he takes over and the planet is not healed like he claimed it would be. Most of the major problems Obama faces – Israelis/Palestinians, Pakistan, recession – are intractable problems and are not things the President can solve with the stroke of a pen.

    • As much as I disagree with you on almost everything, JWL, you always seem to grasp the underlying situation better than most.

      I think a lot of Republicans were blindsided by Cheney’s rush to consolidate power within a small part of the executive & were offended by Bush/Cheney’s tendency to surround themselves with yes men & extreme partisans with no authority of their own. Obama seems to be giving cabinet positions to people with the potential to act on their own authority & initiative. Congress will welcome this as a reprieve to the attack on its authority made by the Bush/Cheney executive. The cost to this is that voters generally like to see unity & cohesion in the executive branch & may punish it for public disagreements between different portfolios, which is bound to happen far more often in this administration than under the Bush/Cheney monolith.

      Anyone hoping to appeal to a majority of Canadians should pay attention to this. A party with a lot of popular cabinet ministers who play nicely with each other is going to campaign a lot more effectively than one that doesn’t. (Rule more effectively? Hard to say) Let’s face it; no matter how much one likes the Conservative brand, any public appearance of Conservatives will be Harper & a bunch of faces 99.9% of Canadians don’t know, what with Mackay, Prentice, Flaherty et al being on such short leashes. (Hmm . . . kind of sounds like the NDP & Layton, other than that Layton doesn’t actually have any fellow MP’s prominent enough to worry about.) The Libs have also fallen into the trap where candidates developing their individual profile makes them a target of leadership insecurity. Under Chretien, there were a dozen ministers with broad recognizability & a large group of up-and-comers. Back in the day, Liberals could hit dozens of locations at once with candidates who could generate a lot of local buzz. These days, all parties together couldn’t do that.

      Note to future leaders: nobody likes a megalomaniac. Especially other megalomaniacs.

  10. You have to admit, the headline is a bit misleading: Obama hasn’t even taken office yet, and already people are worried about his legacy?

    I agree that partisans have a high degree of myopia when it comes to understanding the voting public; however, I have to believe that this problem is more endemic in the Liberal Party than others, mainly because so many of their number confuse “being in the political centre” with “being mainstream.”

  11. Headline’s a bit of a joke…

    • Ironic humour does not apply to the Liberal/Conservative kill zone.

      Well, actually it does …… but ..

  12. I thought the headline was a hilarious indictment of the media’s love affair with Obama.

  13. Personally I feel sorry for Obama as he is about to embark on a very old adventure going back to the roots of every cultures most ancient of myths. Here is coming the fulfillment of a peoples wish to have a savior as leader as if a single leader can somehow change a people …. rather sad to see it play it out again and again from the mayans maize god to the king for a year of our celtic myths to that of the greeks etc etc etc – here will come Obama and at first there will be the celebratory rush of something seen as different and yet will play out just like all the other attempts becuase it avoids the main idea. If people want change THEY have to change not their symbol because ultimately that is what Obama is a symbol – when the highway meets the road and the day to day disappointments start to build up and his honeymoon is over the inevitable will occur and that which climbed gloriouls high will be bought back down to earth just as if not quicker. Here lies Ozymandias …

  14. I don’t think we’re as patriotic as Americans. And I think those figures could be wrong. If half of Americans thought George Bush II had been doing a good job transitioning – while the question of his legitimacy was still going through the courts, and all that hanging-chad nonsense – it would amaze me. But they are Americans and they tend to congeal around their President, the figurehead of their nation. I still think, however, that if our Coalition of the Willing or Rebel Alliance was actually given power, people would give them more breathing room than pundits guess.

  15. The expectations on Obama are huge. And, he is only the President, a comparatively weak office except when he gets to put his finger on the “big trigger”. The main task of any President is to keep public opinion on his side. Obama appears to be off to a good start but one wonders if the positive perceptions are grounded more in hope than in reality. We don’t know much about his reality, and hope only lasts so long as there is clear progress towards what is hoped for.