In the summer of their discontent, liberal Democrats are taking some comfort in the notion that Obama’s declining popularity is almost entirely explained by the state of the macro-economy rather than the apparent unpopularity of his liberal agenda. That’s not an idea they pulled out of thin air; there’s a lot of political science suggesting that macro-economic variables explain most of the variation in presidential and congressional popularity. Jon Chait's views in this respect are exemplary: "Right now," he observes, "President Obama's approval rating is hovering just below 50%, about even with his disapproval rating. Given the state of the economy, that's not low."
Here’s an informative exchange between Sean Trende and Nate Silver about the comparative effects of macro-economic variables and popular attitudes toward ObamaCare and the stimulus bill on Obama’s popularity. It matters politically who’s right; to the extent Obama’s political troubles are a function of the general state of the economy, it’s not unreasonable for Democrats to hope that his policy agenda isn’t really as unpopular as it looks right now. That leaves open the possibility that they’ll be able to dust off the mandate Obama won in 2008 later in his presidency after the economy recovers.
Assume the best-case-scenario for Democrats, that dispassionate analysis of the polling data reveals their political troubles are entirely a function of macro-economic variables that are outside, and generally recognized to be outside, Obama’s immediate control. Wouldn’t that be great news for Democrats, particularly liberal Democrats, if it were true?
Not entirely. The trouble is that what holds good for the Democratic goose probably also holds good for the Republican gander. If macro-economics entirely explain the decline in Democratic political fortunes, they probably also largely explain the decline of Republican fortunes in the fall of 2008. Remember, the economy was already visibly deteriorating throughout the 2008 general election. Yet it still took the financial collapse precipitated by the insolvency of Lehman Brothers and AIG in the fall to deprive McCain/Palin of the measurable lead they enjoyed in the presidential election polls after the party conventions despite being Republican successors to Bush/Cheney and the inheritors of the political legacy of the Iraq war.
That raises the possibility that the Democrats’ mandate to enact a specific policy agenda was never that strong to begin with, and not nearly as strong as liberal Democrats thought it was when Obama was inaugurated. If due regard for the impact of macro-economic variables on elections suggests that Obama’s agenda isn’t really as unpopular as it now looks, it also suggests that it never really was as popular as it looked in November, 2008.