Obama: The temptation to coast on his legacy must be overwhelming


Barack Obama is way more popular than any of his predecessors were at the point in their administration when they hadn’t done anything either: 82% of Americans approve of the way he’s handling the transition, compared to 65% for W. in 2000 and 67% for Bill Clinton in 1992. This leads to a level of optimism that would be unfashionable if it weren’t so widespread: while 59% think the economy is getting worse, 59% expect it to be better in a year, which in my mind conjures an image of an economy like an Escher print, monks resolutely striding downstairs to get to a point above where they began. This is ominous. Things almost never turn out well when public opinion is shaped like an undergraduate poster sale.

But in the meantime, these numbers are illustrative of a handy little point. Recall that Obama won barely over half the popular vote, and concede with me, if you will, that a President-Elect John McCain would by now be getting perhaps 60% or 70% approval for his own transition behaviour, if he had managed to get himself put in charge of a transition. (I made up that number out of nothing, but I don’t think it’s wildly implausible.) That leaves you with perhaps a third of the U.S. electorate that is willing to like any president in the absence of solid reasons why they shouldn’t. I think you’d get the same sort of number up here.

The point I’m making should probably be so obvious it’s not worth repeating, but it’s tended to get lost in the recent hyper-partisan environment: most people aren’t partisan. So most participants in political debates, being strongly engaged in one camp or another, have a hard time figuring out how regular people think. We saw a lot of that during what Colleague Potter calls The Madness, when people who simply don’t like Stephen Harper were prepared to believe the electorate would swallow any alternative to Harper, no matter how rickety — and when Harper made his own missteps out of an inability to understand that his animosity toward Liberals actually isn’t broadly shared across the electorate. A large part of the public was watching it all dispassionately as it unfolded. Distractedly too, of course, and often with only a shaky understanding of the constitutional niceties involved, to be sure. But mostly people are prepared to cut the prime minister, whoever the prime minister is, a lot of slack; and also willing to consider alternatives if the alternatives made any sense, if they held together logically and organizationally. Which, I’m afraid, the proposed coalition doesn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with fierce partisan engagement. Clashes of ideas are healthy. But combatants would do well to remember that the voting audience isn’t nearly as caught up in us-and-them self-identification as the combatants are.

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