The Great Obama Panic of 2009

Pardon me for not getting too worked up about the Stunning Decline In Barack Obama’s Poll Numbers.

Yes, the president’s approval rating, which was roughly on par with that of the microwave oven when he first took office, has fallen to around 50 percent. And this makes it possible for pundits to declare a political crisis and to attach to that crisis whatever meaning they want.

“All presidents fall from their honeymoon highs, but in the history of polling, no newly elected American president has fallen this far this fast,” an exercised David Brooks wrote this week, contending that Obama is in danger of becoming “president of 35 percent of the nation” if he doesn’t rein in his health care goals.

Surely, though, Brooks has been around long enough to remember a similar moment 16 years ago—the end of the summer of 1993, when the Braves and Giants were staging a memorable pennant chase, “Another Stakeout” was playing in theaters, and Chevy Chase’s can’t-fail late-night show was poised to make its debut.

Back then, the pundits were sounding the alarm about President Bill Clinton’s appalling poll numbers: a 44 percent approval rating, or—as every media outlet made sure to note—the worst score for a first year president since modern polling began during the Eisenhower administration.

At the time, Clinton had just rammed a massively unpopular budget through Congress, one that called for tax hikes for high-income earners, without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate. It only passed after Al Gore broke a 50-50 tie in the Senate—which came only after a furious day of arm-twisting finally convinced Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey not to vote against the package.

Clinton had introduced the budget plan in February, not long after taking office. Initially, the public reacted favorably. But marching in lockstep, Republicans relentlessly battered it as a jobs-killing enemy of economic recovery. They also screamed about the process, insisting that the White House and Congressional Democrats were force-feeding Americans a bill they didn’t need or want.

The result was predictable: Week after week in the spring and summer of ’93, public support for Clinton’s budget dropped, and with it support for Clinton’s presidency. There really wasn’t much the White House could do, either. The plan was massive and Republicans, who had no interest in hashing out any compromise, were free to attack and demagogue from every angle imaginable.

The public, which certainly wasn’t analyzing the budget line by line, read the Democrats’ defensive posture as a sign that there had to be something to all of the Republican attacks. So Clinton, at the end of his first summer in office, was confronted with roughly what Obama is now facing: a chorus of media alarmists, all of them unable to look at the bigger picture.

The bigger picture actually was quite favorable for Clinton. The budget that he pushed through without a single Republican vote inspired confidence on Wall Street and helped transform a burgeoning economic recovery into nearly a decade of booming prosperity.

This result wasn’t obvious at first, of course. In the fall of 1993, Clinton’s party lost all three marquee races—for the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia and the mayoralty of New York. And then came the Republican Revolution of 1994, after which everyone agreed that Clinton would be thrashed in 1996, unless he had the good judgment to get out of the way before then.

But by 1995, the public’s confidence in the economy had turned around and—not surprisingly—voters came to see their president in a new light. The seeds planted in the summer of ’93 were sprouting. (It didn’t hurt that Newt Gingrich and the Congressional Republicans badly overplayed their hand in budget negotiations, accelerating Clinton’s comeback.) The rest is history.

Republicans have treated Obama just as they did Clinton in ’93—with hostility and demagoguery. This was a brilliant strategy in ’93 and ’94, when Clinton pursued an ambitious agenda and voters were still uneasy about the economy. But when the country recovered its footing, the G.O.P. had nothing left to stand on, and the Dole debacle of 1996 was the result.

(Post-post-game analysis from conservatives tended to sound a lot like this 1997 Wall Street Journal piece from William Kristol and David Brooks, who was then an editor at the Weekly Standard: "The way to defeat the unctuous and trivializing politics of Bill Clinton is by making it seem petty and contemptible in light of the greatness of the American experiment.")

There’s no reason—yet—to believe that Obama’s story won’t play out similarly over the next couple of years, once again leaving the pundits who now believe they're watching the unraveling of a presidency to wonder how he managed to conjure political success out of the flotsam of 2009.

But there's no magic to it. Obama inherited two wars and the worst economy in generations, with an unemployment rate that might hit double digits before it returns to earth. The magnitude of the country’s problems explains why his early approval ratings were so high: everyone wanted to believe.

Given all we know about how fickle mass opinion is, it’s not at all surprising or even that significant that those numbers have dropped so much. The economy is still struggling, and Obama’s programs are either just being implemented or still working their way toward ratification. In terms of poll numbers, this is the perfect atmosphere for the unified rejectionism that Republicans have shown.

Brooks and other critics suggest that Obama's path to recovery is to give in to the polls and pare back his agenda. This same advice was given to Clinton when he pushed for his budget in ’93. “It’s a bad piece of legislation that the public hates—get rid of it and let’s make a fresh start!” they urged him. But Clinton pressed ahead and eventually found out what we’d all be wise to remember now: It can take time, but when the economy comes back, so will the voters.