Referring to the ever-shifting consensus of the cable news world, Barack Obama noted at a Democratic fund-raising dinner on Wednesday night that “One day, I’m a genius. One day, I’m a bum. You know, every day there’s a new winner and a new loser.”
Of course, it’s not just talking heads on cable television who think this way. In one way or another, just about everyone who’s closely watching the Obama presidency is liable to read too much into a few particularly positive or negative news cycles—and the last two weeks demonstrate how dramatically a few fortuitous events can change the mood surrounding a presidency.
Last week, the prevailing view was that Obama was bumbling his way out of the good graces of a public increasingly consumed with anti-corporate rage. His response to news of AIG’s taxpayer-funded bonus bonanza was sluggish, and when he finally got around to making his own obligatory expression of outrage, it came across (to me, among others) as half-hearted. Meanwhile, calls for the head of his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, were intensifying—just as Obama and Geithner were set to unveil their controversial bank rescue plan.
“Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts, his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed,” Frank Rich wrote in a column that fairly well summed up the mood.
Against that backdrop, it’s not surprising that Obama’s subsequent public-relations push—a visit to Jay Leno’s Tonight Show couch, an interview on 60 Minutes, a Tuesday night press conference, and even a brief appearance on ESPN to discuss his NCAA tournament picks—was greeted with unusually critical coverage. With the country up in arms over AIG and Obama’s bank rescue effort seemingly in jeopardy, the question was asked over and over: Shouldn’t the president be busy fixing the economy, and not so worried about being on television?
But now, a week later, the mood around Obama’s presidency seems to be brightening.
The most important contributing factor, by far, is this week’s surge in the Dow, which closed at over 7,900 on Thursday—up nearly 700 points from Monday. The uptick coincided with the formal unveiling of Obama and Geithner’s bank plan. This has significantly improved the plan’s public image, as well as its chances of winning friends on Capitol Hill.
Before this week, the looming bank plan seemed destined to face withering criticism upon its release—and, at first, there was plenty of this. But the Dow’s rally has changed conventional wisdom, at least for now. For the first time since he took over, Geithner is getting some credit for a smart move. The calls for his dismissal aren’t nearly as loud as they were a week ago.
Geithner followed up the bank announcement with a plan to regulate hedge funds, which he detailed to a Congressional committee on Thursday. No matter what becomes of the plan, this is an essential P.R. step for the administration, which needs to convince Americans that it is taking proactive steps to prevent future economic crises.
Like his Treasury secretary, Obama himself seem to be in a much better spot now than last week. In his case, the best news is that last week’s prevailing theme—that AIG rage was threatening Obama’s agenda and popularity and that the country was getting sick of watching him go on TV while the economy collapsed—has pretty much disappeared.
The Dow obviously played a role in this, too, but it’s reinforced by a new poll, released in the middle of this week by CBS News. The findings belied the notion that public confidence in Obama was slipping. His approval rating stood at 64 percent, with support for his overall handling of the economy measured at 61 percent—actually up five points from a CBS poll taken two weeks earlier. The poll did find dissatisfaction with Obama’s response to the AIG bonuses—42 percent didn’t like how he handled it, while only 41 percent did—but the fact that this didn’t bring down his other numbers showed an apparent immunity to AIG rage that few had expected a week earlier.
(The poll also found that 54 percent of voters have “some” or “a lot” of confidence in Geithner, with only 35 percent saying they have “none” or “not much.”)
This reversed the perception of Obama’s media blitz. Instead of portraying his appearances as the act of a tone-deaf administration intent on testing the patience of a restive electorate, the poll—along with the television ratings—suggested that Americans were actually happy to hear from their president.
What may be most amazing about the past week is that Obama seems to have gotten away without taking dramatic action—or any action, really—on the most resonant issue in America, the AIG bonuses. He offered some public lip service—not enough, as the poll showed—in decrying them, but it’s also clear that he and his administration are not going to take any meaningful steps to revoke them. And yet, as the public’s anger slowly dies down, there’s no sign that Obama will pay any political price for his double-speak.
And so, after flirting with the bum designation, our great narrative-writers are edging back toward Obama the Genius. At least for this week.