The National Journal’s Ron Fournier theorized yesterday that the reason President Barack Obama is struggling is that he casts himself as the hero of his own story. In short, he talks too much about “I, me, my.”
This is nonsense. The Fix’s Philip Bump did a quickie study and found that Obama doesn’t actually talk about himself much more than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton did. Bush did so somewhat less than the other two, and Obama barely edges out Clinton.
What Bump forgets to mention, however, is that the president who talked about himself least (of these three) was also the least popular. Bump looked at each president’s words in their sixth summer in office. Obama’s approval ratings are in the low 40s. In the summer of 1998, in the thick of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton was coasting in the low to mid 60s. In his sixth summer in office, Bush was in the high 30s.
The truth is that presidential rhetoric, though important in some ways, doesn’t have much to do with either presidential popularity or policy achievements. The former is mainly driven by events: Clinton was popular in 1998 because of peace, prosperity and the perception of Republican overkill in the Lewinsky scandal. Bush was unpopular in 2006 mainly because of the Iraq War. And Obama’s mediocre approval ratings? The main driver appears to be continued economic dissatisfaction, though the recent (possible) mild drop in approval may be an effect of several foreign policy events along with the high-profile border-security story.
While Bump doesn’t track the numbers over presidential terms, I’d guess that each president was relatively consistent in the amount of time they devoted to talking about themselves — but their popularity and ability to get things done swung wildly over the course of their presidencies.
Meanwhile, it is absurd to believe that Obama could somehow get House Republicans to cut deals with him on, say, immigration, if only he managed to construct a “narrative” that was about the country and not about himself. This notion doesn’t fit with anything that either political scientists or most sensible political observers (or, for that matter, partisans on either side) have seen. There are solid reasons why House Republicans and Obama are far apart on many policy items, and very real reasons why House Republicans aren’t interested in the sorts of deals that are available (for example, the immigration deal some Senate Republicans approved).
In other words, both congressional gridlock and Obama’s mediocre approval ratings have understandable structural causes. All this stuff about narratives is mostly an attempt to personalize something that goes a lot deeper. It might be nice if a president’s choice of words in his stump speeches were critically important in that way, but it ain’t so.
[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]