Evidence Matters, Even During the President’s Sixth Year

The headline of Jennifer Rubin’s Thursday piece announces that “the country has had it with Obama.” While the piece points out a wide range of criticisms that have appeared on editorial pages and in recent polls, she has a few problems in terms of facts and interpretation:

1. This assertion: “Through polls Americans say they do not trust Obama to handle major issues, they don’t like how he responded to the Ferguson, Mo., convulsion, and they would rather Congress run things for a while.”

The link takes you to an earlier piece by Rubin, which features a link to the ABC poll from which she draws the conclusion that Americans would prefer Congress take the lead on responding to Ferguson. One problem: the poll doesn’t say that at all. The fourth question asks whether respondents approve or disapprove of the president’s handling of the situation. The other three questions ask about the decision itself, the way the police have handled the protests and whether the federal government should bring civil rights charges. There’s no mention of Congress in the questions. It also doesn’t actually follow that if citizens don’t approve of presidential action, they’re ready to hand the reins to Congress. Anyone with a passing familiarity with polling responses knows that “response instability” or straight-up contradictory answers is common. Furthermore, research exists that shows that Americans are particularly conflicted when it comes to our “process preferences” – we tend to distrust both government and fellow citizens to make good choices. Finally, even before its current depths, Congress tends to be pretty unpopular. Maybe voters would like Congress to take the lead in handling racial issues, but available evidence does not suggest that this is the most obvious conclusion. It’s entirely possible that voters trust neither institution to handle the situation.

2. About the contentious aftermath of the Brown and Garner deaths, Rubin says, “His rhetoric and actions did not cause these recent racial incidents, but they come in a context he certainly created.”

The disappointment about Obama’s failure to unite the country is notable in lots of circles. But let’s not forget that even if there are different choices he could have made that would have altered political outcomes, the whole reason he spoke about race and healing divisions in the 2008 campaign is that our society has historically been divided by race. Actually, that sentence is hugely sanitized. Our society is one in which part of the country used to own human beings, in which people fought and died for that to end, and then more people suffered and marched and protested and, yes, died for the right to participate equally in political and economic life. Don’t take my word for it – check out what Annette Gordon-Reed, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Ange-Marie Hancock, just to point out a few people who have deeply researched this topic. Obama hardly invented racial divisions in America.

3. Rubin may well be right that Obama’s foreign policy calls for scrutiny. But there’s no reason to exempt previous administrations, including but not limited to George W. Bush, from this. Obama didn’t invent Vladimir Putin, ISIS, or the struggles of the Middle East. Given the controversy over Bush’s foreign policy at this point in his presidency, and the issues in the 2008 campaign, any serious criticism of Obama’s approach should acknowledge the long-term dynamics.

There’s been a lot of talk this week about what we should be able to expect from journalists. Even in an op-ed, basic reporting of facts isn’t too much to ask. Beyond that, responsible commentators should try to put those basic facts in reasonable context and to challenge superficial interpretations. Americans might be tired of Obama and his policies. That’s not so unusual for a president nearing the final half of his second term. But let’s not overstate – or overlook – evidence about why dissatisfaction has once again taken hold.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.