Ignoring the obvious

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Howard Kurtz's column today is a textbook example of the tendency of reporters and pundits to grope around for convoluted explanations for things that are probably rather simple. In this case, Kurtz purports to examine "why Barack Obama hasn't been a more effective president," by which he seems to mean "why Barack Obama hasn't been a more popular president."

The most likely answer to that question is pretty simple: The economy isn't any good, and unemployment is high. But Kurtz makes only passing mention of that before moving on to asserting that Obama "has had trouble connecting with much of the public" and "often seems a step behind" and going on about Obama "staying above the fray" and "messaging" and "framing." At no point does Kurtz consider the strong probability that none of those things would be perceived as problems if economic growth was strong and unemployment was at 7 percent and heading lower.

This sentence is illustrative of Kurtz's blindness to the relationship between the public's economic security and presidential popularity: "Clinton, faced with a Republican Congress, spent time on V-chips and school uniforms and was criticized for small ball -- but it helped sustain his popularity when the scandals hit."

Really? Howard Kurtz thinks that Bill Clinton's "small ball" school-uniform proposals, rather than a humming economy and a rabid and unpopular opposition party, sustained him through "the scandals"?

The problem with "analysis" like this (aside from the fact that it is infuriating to read) is that it creates the impression that elected officials who want to be well-liked (which is to say, "elected officials") should focus on "messaging" and "connecting with people" rather than on doing everything they can to fix the economy -- a perception that has dire consequences for both the popularity of those elected officials and, far more importantly, the country's economic well-being.

Unfortunately, the media/pundit class has an incentive to pontificate in ever-more-creative ways about a president's need to play "small-ball" and "connect" with people: Convoluted theories about school uniform proposals being more responsible for presidential popularity than the economy give pundits like Kurtz something unique to say. The "analysis" is really about being "interesting" and selling the person doing the analysis, not providing the analysis that is most likely to be correct.

The Washington Post
Howard Kurtz
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