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Cabinet Snafus Don’t Matter

- February 9, 2009

Maybe we’ve heard our last of Cabinet appointees who haven’t paid their taxes. Maybe we haven’t. In any case, the outpouring of news and commentary devoted to this issue is vastly out of proportion with what it signifies over the long term. None of this will ultimately affect Obama’s standing or his re-election prospects or much else of consequence.

First, Obama’s approval rating seems fine, as of now, belying the “skepticism” that Maureen Dowd imputed to “Americans”:

bq. Betrayed by their bankers and leaders, Americans were desperate to trust someone when they made Barack Obama president. His debut has left them skeptical about his willingness to smack down those who would flout his high standards or waste our money.

And belying Howard Kurtz:

bq. I think journalists were looking at the inside game — how many votes were lined up for confirmation — while shortchanging the outside game, which is how badly this was playing in the country.

When you hear about how something “was playing in the country,” and there isn’t a poll in sight, you know that someone is making stuff up.

The key points are these:

* How many Americans really know what’s going on with Geithner, Daschle, et al.? Who’s following these stories that closely? The relatively small fraction of people who follow politics on a daily basis.

* And most of these people already have pretty fixed ideas about Obama. Hence it’s hardly any surprise that Obama’s poll numbers didn’t dip suddenly with the news of Geithner’s or Daschle’s tax problems. Instead, his rating has steadily ticked down a few points since inauguration, likely as some Republicans have changed their minds (a trend that should continue).[1] It hardly seems that “the country” or “Americans” are really all that exercised about this.

* Rarely does a presidency or a presidential election actually turn on malfeasance. It takes a scandal of pretty large proportions — Watergate, Iran/contra — to affect a president’s public standing. Even the parade of Clinton-era scandals didn’t affect his approval rating all that much. And trust in government went up! The public just doesn’t weight minor scandals that much, if at all. And scandals about Cabinet nominees not paying taxes are minor indeed.

But isn’t Obama disappointing all those people who were “desperate to trust someone” and voted for him hoping for cleaner government? The problem is that’s not why most people voted for him. Voting behavior hinged much more on partisanship and the economy than on Obama’s rhetoric about a cleaner government. Major scandals aside, that’s how presidents are evaluated.

fn1. After I wrote this, Mark Blumenthal posted some evidence. The small downward shift in Obama’s approval is being driven mostly by Republicans.