Obama's Completely Irrelevant "Likeability" Gap

Now that we're approaching another presidential election, it's prime time for pundits and their tired, demonstrably false tropes on how to find electoral success. For example, The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger attributes President Obama's falling popularity to his recent rhetoric and (apparently) prickly personality:

The latest Obama, which seems genuine, routinely ridicules and mocks his opposition. He mocks pretty much anyone who disagrees with him about anything.

Gallup just reported that the Obama approval rate among independent voters stands at 35%. The conventional reply to this is that the American people fundamentally "like" Barack Obama, or that the GOP candidate will make the election an unlikability Olympics.

What voters like is the memory of the historic Obama they voted into the office of the presidency. The person they voted for in 2008 is different than the person who kicked off his presidential campaign last week by personally stomping his opposition.

Somehow voters are apparently expected to "like" whichever version Mr. Obama chooses to give them. It is asking a lot. By definition, this is a gap, and it's looking like it could be a dangerous one for the incumbent.

A few things. First, Henninger was obviously annoyed by Obama's speech last night, but there's little evidence that it backfired with the public. As Brendan Nyhan noted a few days ago, neither Gallup nor Rasmussen show significant before/after change with regards to presidential approval. If the voters didn't like the speech -- or even noticed -- they haven't told pollsters.

Second, and more important, "likability" (a subjective and completely amorphous quality) has absolutely nothing to do with presidential approval or electoral performance. I've made this point a million times before, but Barack Obama is presiding over a sluggish economy with high unemployment; if you're trying to explain his low approval ratings, that should be your first stop. Indeed, the two most popular presidents in recent memory -- Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- also had their approval ratings dip in the face of poor economic performance.

I understand why pundits would want to divine electoral success from "likability" and other nebulous metrics: It flatters their sensibilities as professional observers of politics. Unfortunately for them, this basically mystical view of American politics is thoroughly useless.

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