The easiest answer happens to be right

THE EASIEST ANSWER HAPPENS TO BE RIGHT…. As President Obama’s approval ratings drift in the wrong direction, there’s a tendency for pundits to avoid the plainly obvious truth — the economy’s troubles are a severe drag on the president’s popularity — because it makes for awful columns and on-air commentary. It’s just too simple. Depth of analysis is wholly unnecessary.

But Matt Bai keeps working on more sophisticated explanations anyway. In the latest take on Obama’s faltering standing, Bai makes the case that the president’s too much of a legislator.

The point isn’t that Bai’s piece is bad; it’s not. The point is, if unemployment was 7% and falling, does anyone seriously believe we’d be having this conversation? I’m not going to claim to be an expert on public opinion, but I’m pretty comfortable guessing that much of the country hoped/expected the economy to be stronger at this point. They’re frustrated and nervous, so they’re dissatisfied with the man in the Oval Office.

It’s hardly unprecedented. At this point 28 years ago, unemployment was even higher, and President Reagan’s slipping poll numbers were nearly identical to Obama’s trajectory now. Voters then, as now, expected the exciting new president to generate a stronger economy, and then, as now, they blamed the chief executive for falling short.

Steve Kornacki recently offered a helpful walk down memory lane.

After the ’82 vote, Reagan faced calls from his fellow Republicans not to seek reelection in 1984. Some outspoken conservatives even demanded — publicly — that he be challenged in the ’84 primaries if he went ahead and ran. (Jack Kemp, William Armstrong and Jesse Helms were all touted as would-be challengers.) Liberal Republicans (they still existed, sort of) were equally discontent; a pre-scandal Bob Packwood made a late ’82 trip to New Hampshire, teasing a possible bid of his own. And Capitol Hill Republicans began charting a course independent of the Reagan White House.

All of this stopped only when the economy — and, as a result, Reagan’s poll numbers — began showing life in ’83.

Republicans tend to hate this history, not because it’s wrong, but because it’s inconsistent with the myth they’ve worked so hard to sell. Wait, you mean Reagan wasn’t universally loved at all times? Congressional Republicans didn’t want to campaign with him, and party leaders worried in ’82 that Reagan was in over his head? Well, yes, that’s exactly what happened.

And then the economy got better.

It’s why it’s easy to draw conclusions now. A stronger economy will bolster Obama’s standing. A weaker economy will not. This isn’t rocket science.

Sure, individual events can generate peaks and valleys. There’s some evidence that the media criticism in May on the BP oil spill had a negative effect on the president’s numbers, and it’s possible the Park51 story is costing him a little. Of course, if Osama bin Laden were killed tomorrow, Obama might get a bump in the other direction.

But the larger truth is still unavoidable — the president’s numbers will rise when the economy does — and very easy to understand.