Who measures up?

Why some leaders’ approval ratings keep rising, and not others

Who measures up?In 1992, Bill Clinton pushed George H.W. Bush from the White House by focusing his campaign on a simple reality: times were tough and voters were looking for someone to blame. “It’s the economy, stupid,” read the legendary sign affixed to the walls of his Little Rock, Ark., headquarters. But a decade and a half later, amidst a much more severe global downturn, polls suggest the link between the recession and removal from office is no longer quite so automatic. The only world leaders who are in trouble now seem to be the ones people weren’t so hot on in the first place.

South of the border, where the economic crisis started and is being keenly felt, President Barack Obama is basking in a 69 per cent approval rating, up three points from last month, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News survey. And despite the plethora of domestic and foreign challenges, 48 per cent of Americans now say their country is headed in the right direction, the highest number since the beginning of 2004, reports the Associated Press. In Australia, support for Kevin Rudd, elected in November 2007, remains high—68 per cent according to the latest poll, up five points since late March. The story is the same in Germany, where Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats are holding steady at 35 per cent, while support for her main rival, the leftist Social Democrats, is tumbling. In France, where the Great Recession has sparked massive street protests and a sharp uptick in “boss-nappings,” 48 per cent of voters nonetheless report a positive opinion of President Nicolas Sarkozy, up six points in a month. And Silvio Berlusconi, the gaffe-prone Italian prime minister, has the confidence of 56 per cent of the electorate, according to the latest poll, up four per cent.

It’s a trend in popularity numbers that seems counterintuitive, given the worldwide reality of massive layoffs and hard-hit retirement savings, but one that suggests people aren’t lying when they tell pollsters they perceive the current crisis as something largely beyond the control of their own national governments. “European voters may not understand the inner working of EU monetary policy, but they do seem to grasp that holding governments accountable for economic outcomes today, like we did five years ago, may no longer make sense,” says Carol Mershon, a specialist in comparative politics at the University of Virginia.

In a time of global recession, therefore, the old adage that all politics are local is more pertinent than ever. Obama delivers large dollops of the hope Americans crave, while simultaneously dampening their expectations. Merkel profits from her reputation as a steadying influence on Germany’s sometimes shaky coalition government. Sarkozy, a polarizing figure, has bolstered the confidence of his own supporters by appearing more decisive at home—last week unveiling a billion-euro youth job scheme to counter soaring unemployment among people under 25—and on the world stage. And Berlusconi just continues to be Berlusconi, as media savvy as he is outrageous. “He’s the Teflon man,” says Mershon. “How many leaders have been convicted of crimes and then returned to office by the voters?”

There are exceptions, of course. Or perhaps more accurately, places where the economic downturn has hit so hard that forgetting and forgiving is simply not an option. Voters in Iceland, where the entire banking system collapsed in October, turfed the conservative Independence Party from office last week, bringing an end to the party’s 70-year grip on power. (Awfully hard to blame your predecessors.) Ireland, where the economy was once lauded as the “Celtic Tiger,” has seen unemployment double in a year, the property market melt down, and its projected deficit balloon to almost 11 per cent of GDP, the largest in the EU. Consequently, the popularity of Prime Minister Brian Cowan’s Fianna Fail party is plummeting, down five points in a month to 23 per cent. (They won the 2007 general election with 42 per cent of first-preference votes.)

But more often, world leaders whose political fortunes are actually in decline seem to have only themselves to blame. The U.K.’s Gordon Brown was on the ropes long before the current crisis, with his Labour Party consistently trailing the Conservative opposition since January 2008. In fact, his public approval ratings have actually marginally improved—around 20 per cent currently—up from 17 per cent last summer when his government was rated the least popular Labour administration ever. “The general feeling at the moment is that the Labour Party are stuffed,” says John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. The Tories and their dynamic young leader David Cameron have a 20-point lead, according to the latest polls, and an election must be called by May 2010. And in a strangely familiar scenario for Canadians, Brown, once lionized for his acumen as the minister in charge of the nation’s finances, is now viewed as a dithering and ineffectual prime minister. “He is not somebody who finds it easy to communicate with the wider public,” says Curtice. “He lacks Tony Blair’s charisma, and he’s really not that good at thinking on his feet.”

Back home in Canada, it appears that Stephen Harper might be suffering from a similar political disease. Opinion surveys consistently give his Conservative government decent if not extraordinary marks for its handling of the economic crisis (six out 10 Canadians said “C” or above in one recent poll.) Yet just six months after leading his Conservatives to a second minority victory, the Prime Minister has seen his party’s popularity slide. As recently as January, the Tories enjoyed a four-point lead over the Liberals. But a spate of new surveys suggest that advantage has dissipated, and the momentum is now all the opposition’s. Last week, a Harris-Decima poll put national support for the Liberals at 33 per cent, versus 29 per cent for the Tories (the NDP was third at 16 per cent). Earlier in the month, Ekos reported the split as 36.7 per cent for the Liberals, 30.2 per cent for the Conservatives, and 15.5 for the NDP.

But the more worrying figures for Harper are surely the measures of his plunging personal credibility with voters. Efforts to dress his cold-fish persona up in a comfy sweater during the last campaign never really worked. And an Angus Reid survey, released this past weekend, had one-third of Canadians saying their opinion of the Prime Minister has “worsened” in the past month. It also pegged Harper’s “momentum score”—an amalgam of feelings about qualities like trustworthiness, vision, and decisiveness—at -20. Michael Ignatieff, in comparison, scored +11 on the same series of questions, with 27 per cent of respondents saying their opinion of him has improved in the past 30 days. Twenty-four per cent now say the new Liberal leader “would make the best prime minister,” moving him into a tie with the man who actually holds the job.

“Sometimes it’s not about the issue, but how you handle the issue,” says Antonia Maioni, director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada. Voters aren’t unhappy with the economic stimulus package that the government ended up adopting, but they do fault the Tories for initially failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation. “They didn’t get it until they were forced to,” says Maioni, pointing to Harper’s musings on the hustings about “good investment opportunities,” and the chop-and-freeze economic plan that almost triggered an election last December.

The way forward for the Conservatives is also becoming more difficult to plot. While they continue to dominate the Prairie provinces, their fortunes are waning in seat-rich Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia—the key battlegrounds in the next election. For example, in La Belle Province, where Tory strategists once hoped to find enough support to lift them to a majority victory, the party is now running a distant third behind the Bloc Québécois and the Liberals, polling at just 12 per cent. And the hopes of recovery—at least under the current leadership—appear dismal.

But at base, the Prime Minister’s biggest challenge may now be geography. “Harper’s real problem is that he suffers from a too close comparison to Barack Obama,” says Maioni. Having to measure up against the world’s most popular leader is not an easy task. Maybe it’s time to borrow some hope.