The New Teflon President

Flummoxed by Ronald Reagan’s enduring popularity in the face of a string of unsettling foreign and domestic developments, Pat Schroeder, then a Democratic congresswoman from Colorado, took to the House floor in 1983 and said of the first-term president: “He has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency: He sees to it that nothing sticks to him.”

Her comment was meant to be disparaging, but in coining the term “Teflon president,” Schroeder actually identified a significant phenomenon in politics—the willingness of voters to excuse in some politicians shortcomings that they wouldn’t accept in most others.

Comparisons between Reagan and Barack Obama have been abundant, so it’s probably only fitting that, five months into his presidency, there are empirical signs that he has a Teflon coating of his own.

Just consider the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, which gives the president a robust 63 percent approval rating, with only a 26 percent disapproval. Nothing new there. But the survey also shows an undercurrent of voter unease with Obama’s actions on some issues. For example, more voters (46 percent) disapprove of his handling of the auto industry than approve (41 percent), and only 44 percent approve of the way he’s addressed health care, compared to 34 percent who disapprove.

Popular discontent also seems to be mounting over Obama’s approach to government spending and budget deficits, areas where Republicans have aggressively targeted the president for criticism. Seventy-four percent of voters say they’ve heard “a lot” or “some” about rising deficits, and 60 percent say that Obama doesn’t have a clear plan to deal with them. Also, 52 percent of voters say they’d prefer the government trim the deficit instead of spending money to stimulate the economy—a 6-point increase from two months ago.

Moreover, the poll comes in the wake of new unemployment numbers that show the nation’s jobless rate stretching to 9.4 percent—the highest it’s been in 26 years. You might think this would all be enough to inflict some serious wear-and-tear on Obama’s popularity. After all, remember how little it took for Bill Clinton’s numbers to deteriorate in the first months of his presidency?

So far, though, it’s not happening. There is one obvious explanation for this: Everyone knows Obama inherited an economic catastrophe (not to mention two wars), and that recovery will take time. So voters aren’t about to give up on him just because the unemployment rate hasn’t gone down. Their patience has been reinforced by a host of news stories suggesting that a turnaround may be near, not to mention a resurgent Dow.

But there’s probably more to it. And here, Reagan’s example, which established both the power and the limits of personal appeal in the television age, can serve as a nice guide.

Take the issue of budget deficits. The 60 percent of voters who don’t believe Obama has a real plan to arrest them are probably right. So far, the president has merely paid lip service to the issue, saying that it keeps him up at night. Republicans, spying a potential opening, have hit him hard on the subject—and, as the CBS/NYT poll shows, they seem to be breaking through on it.

What’s interesting, though, is that Democrats employed the exact same strategy against Reagan, who inherited a $1 trillion debt in 1981 (accumulated over the previous 200 years by his 39 predecessors) and doubled it in his first term. Like Obama, he talked about how concerned he was over the soaring deficits, arguing for a balanced-budget amendment and line-item veto—even as he jacked up military spending and signed one red-ink-soaked budget after another.

Democrats flogged Reagan relentlessly for his fiscal recklessness, and when he ran against Reagan in ’84, Walter Mondale made the soaring debt his centerpiece issue. In one way, their effort succeeded: In an August 1984 poll, voters ranked the budget deficit as their top economic concern—tied with unemployment. And yet, the same poll found that voters who ranked deficits as their top concern preferred Reagan by a 64 to 25 percent margin. And overall, Reagan’s approval rating stood at 55 percent—foreshadowing his 49-state landslide a few months later.

The explanation was simple: Americans largely viewed Reagan and his grandfatherly warmth with affection. They liked him personally and wanted him to succeed. And by ’84, there were clear signs—deficits notwithstanding—that the country’s economic heath had improved over the previous four years. So, they were happy to give Reagan the credit—and to accept his excuses for the runaway deficits and his promises to address them in his second term (which, of course, he didn’t do). 

What is sometimes forgotten about Reagan, though, is that his personal popularity did not always shield him from policy complaints. From late 1981 until early 1983, his job approval ratings dropped precipitously, along with his poll scores on numerous issues. The reason: a recession that began in the fall of 1981 and that eventually pushed unemployment over 10 percent.

It was in this period that Reagan’s Republican suffered a drubbing in the 1982 midterm elections. Generally, people still liked Reagan personally in this period, but it didn’t matter: They believed their lives were getting worse and, thus, they weren’t about to give him a pass on anything.

Obama enjoys personal popularity on a par with Reagan’s, and, despite their concerns on certain issues, voters right now believe that Obama will improve their personal situations. This, too, is evident in the CBS/NYT poll, which shows that 57 percent of voters approve of his overall handling of the economy and that, by a 32 to 15 percent margin, they think Obama’s actions will improve the economy. Also, 44 percent of voters believe the country is now on the right track—up from just 15 percent before Obama was sworn in.

With Reagan, voters showed their willingness to rationalize policy disagreements with a president they liked personally—provided they saw no evidence that their own financial bottom lines were at risk. It’s too early to say for sure, but the early signs suggest the same will be true with Obama.

The New Teflon President