Ron Fournier:

A president is in trouble when he’s forced to defend his relevancy, as Bill Clinton did 18 years ago, or to quote Mark Twain, as Barack Obama did today. “Rumors of my demise,” he said at a news conference, “may be a little exaggerated at this point.”

Not wrong – just “exaggerated.” Not forever – just “at this point.”

Parsing aside, Obama channeled Clinton’s April 18, 1995 news conference by projecting a sense of helplessness – or even haplessness – against forces seemingly out of a president’s control…

“So my question to you,” ABC reporter Jonathan Karl asked Obama, “is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through Congress?”

Ouch. “Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan,” Obama quipped, “maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly.” Then he quoted the humorist Twain, who once denied his death….
[T]he president risks losing the public’s faith when he waves the white flag too often, especially on problems that can be fixed. Blaming the GOP and larger structural problems don’t help the country, much less his legacy.

Interesting theory! If only we could find a way to test it.

Oh, wait — I know.  We can look it up and see what happened.

When Clinton was supposedly projecting helplessness, Gallup was in the middle of a poll, and he scored a fairly weak 46% approval rating. Did his widely-reported press conference destroy him? Was it a disaster for him to “wave the white flag too often” leading to his “losing the public’s faith”? Uh, no. Actually, his approval was already up from the winter lows, and spiked up more after the Oklahoma City bombing, although that was short-lived. So it basically stayed in that same range through the summer, and then gradually started improving that fall, and didn’t stop improving until he became a very popular second-term president.

Oh, and along the way he was emerged victorious in a months-long budget battle with a Republican Congress.

What Fournier may be remembering is that a lot of reporters jumped on Clinton’s press conference remarks to write his obituary. What he’s not remembering is that those reporters were dead wrong. It turned out that Clinton was in fact relevant; it turned out that reporters who were pressing him were the ones who misunderstood the situation.

(Bonus feature: Fournier refers to John Boehner as “far less charismatic” than Newt Gingrich. I don’t really know what charismatic means, but whatever the case is with Boehner, Newt Gingrich is unusually good at making himself very unpopular with most voters. Although there are will always be some reporters who buy his snake oil).

There’s sort of a confusion of terms here, anyway. It does matter, per Neustadt (and I think he’s right), what Members of Congress and other “Washingtonians” think about the president’s negotiating abilities. It doesn’t matter, however, what the public at large think, since they’re not the ones negotiating with him. It might matter how popular he is with the public at large, but that’s likely based more on results (whether correctly attributed to the president or not) than with the inside baseball of Hill negotiations.

At any rate…”relevant” wasn’t a disaster for Bill Clinton, and doesn’t even make a good symbol for his low point, which was several months earlier. What “relevant” really symbolizes is the ability of the press corps to misunderstand what’s going on — they didn’t see, for a long time, that Newt Gingrich was a toxic disaster for Republicans and that Clinton, after two mostly awful and disappointing years, had improved his performance considerably and was also in good shape for becoming popular as well.

Which doesn’t mean that “demise” will turn out to be…well, the point is that it doesn’t have any deep meaning at all. No matter how much some reporters want these things to work that way.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.