David Brooks Misses the Weasel Factor

May 15, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Source: NYTX

Obama Romney

By Marie Burns:

New York Times columnist David Brooks is perplexed. He cannot figure out why President Obama is “even close” in public polls pitting the President against GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney. “How has [Obama] stayed so competitive?” Brooks asks. He cites an impressive – and depressing – array of related poll results that demonstrate why the President should not be popular: three-quarters of Americans believe the economy is still in recession; only 35 percent of Americans say they are better off now than they were four years ago; only a third think the country is “headed in the right direction”; 40 percent of Americans are self-identified conservatives; Obama’s most important achievement – healthcare reform – remains unpopular; and he has lost support among key constituencies.

Though Brooks does not provide links to his polling assertions, I checked out his numbers, and most of them hold up. The one that is questionable is this: “The share of Americans who say the current level of inequality is acceptable has increased by seven percentage points since 1998, to 52 percent.” Whether Americans think the current level of wealth inequality is acceptable depends upon the form of the question “because a focus on inequality doesn’t personally resonate for most people,” William Galston wrote recently in The New Republic. (Brooks cites another of Galston’s articles.) Ask people their attitudes about the current economic system, as Gallup did in a January poll, and

only 45 percent thought it was fundamentally fair, while 49 percent did not…. But then came the next question: Do you think the U.S. economic system is fair or unfair to you personally? Sixty-two percent thought that it was fair to them as individuals; only 36 percent did not. That helps explain why a majority regards current inequalities as ‘an acceptable part of our economic system.’

Galston remarks on other studies, one from November 2011 that found that 60 percent of Americans agreed that “our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal,” and 63 percent believed that “we need to dramatically reduce inequalities between rich and poor, whites and people of color and men and women.” In another study, academic researchers found that a whopping “92 percent of Americans preferred the wealth distribution of Sweden over that of the United States.” (Galston doesn’t say so, but this finding of the academic study is crucial: the respondents didn’t know they were choosing Sweden over the U.S.; in fact, they believed the level of U.S. wealth distribution was already about as the same as the level that actually exists in Sweden. It’s an interesting study because it demonstrates how clueless Americans are about the level of income inequality in this country. Occupy has work to do. So does Obama.)

Brooks flounders about looking for something to explain Obama’s approval rating, which hovers near 50 percent. He takes a stab at demographics: “The population segments that are solidly Democratic, like single women and the unchurched, are expanding.” For some reason or reasons, Brooks omits mention of pro-Obama ethnic, economic and age groups. Maybe he doesn’t want to have to concurrently acknowledge that his Republican friends have been busy disenfranchising Americans in ethnic, economic and age groups more friendly to Obama. Perhaps Brooks figures that their preference for Obama won’t matter in November because new voter suppression laws will keep them from voting.

“But,” Brooks concludes, “most of the cause” of Obama’s standing “is personal. In survey after survey, Obama is far more popular than his policies.” Why?

After spending half his column citing public polling, Brooks suddenly abandons the numbers and turns to his own insights to explain Obama’s popularity. Obama, Brooks writes, has a “post-boomer leadership style…; he is self-disciplined, traditional and a bit formal…; postfeminist in his values, but also thoroughly traditional in style – hypercompetitive, restrained, not given to self-doubt, rarely self-indulgent.” These traits, Brooks explains, are characteristic of “ESPN masculinity.” Obama is “The ESPN Man.” As a non-sports fan, I’ll have to take Brooks’ word on this. I doubt Brooks watches much more ESPN than I do, so I suspect his labeling Obama as “ESPN Man” is an attempt to define the President as a celebrity, someone whose interests are popular but inconsequential. Brooks concludes, Obama’s “leadership style is keeping him afloat. He has defined a version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.” You see, it’s all about style, not substance. John McCain tried this route, to some effect, in 2008, with his TV ads “The One” and “Celeb.” The Celeb ad equated Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The Karl Rove super-PAC American Crossroads has already revived that tack in the 2012 race, producing a 45-second video titled “Cool,” “meant to paint Obama as a celebrity icon who is an ineffective leader.” So thanks, Brooks, for making your own little contribution to this line of attack.

Since Brooks initially compared Obama’s popularity to Romney’s you might think he would have mentioned why Obama fared so well, not compared to the economy, but to Romney. He didn’t. You’ll have to turn to Brooks’ colleague Tim Egan for that. In today’s post, Egan describes Romney as a weasel, a candidate with “a tendency to dodge, weave, parse or deny in such a way that it outweighs the original offense. It’s his weasel problem, a real character flaw.” Egan provides a list of Romney’s attempts to weasel out of his previous acts and policy positions, including his position on health care, where “Romney is in a weasel world all his own.”

But I decided to follow Brooks, and instead of dropping the public polling as Brooks did, I looked to the polls for answers to Brooks’ question. USA Today/Gallup poll conducted earlier this month found that “Registered voters are nearly twice as likely to say Barack Obama, rather than Mitt Romney, is the more likable of the two presidential candidates.” Obama had a 60 percent to 31 percent advantage on this characteristic. The poll also found that Obama “holds a significant lead on caring about the needs of people and being a strong and decisive leader. Romney’s best showing is on managing the government effectively, for which he holds a slight but not statistically meaningful 46% to 43% edge over Obama.” A CNN poll conducted in early-to-mid April found that Obama also had a significant “likeability” edge over Romney (56 to 27 percent) among likely voters. Those polled also found Obama to be “more honest and trustworthy” than Romney (44 to 33 percent); Obama shared their values more than did Romney (49 to 37 percent); and Obama “stood up for what he believed in” more than Romney (50 to 29 percent). In a mid-April Fox “News” poll that had Romney leading Obama in the presidential race, those polled still found that Obama led Romney in personal qualities: “Obama won easily – 42 percent to 33 – when the question was ‘Who is smarter?’ Obama also won on questions of which man is more trustworthy, more optimistic, and which is more likely to tell the truth…. Romney won by a large majority – 46 percent to 39 – when they were asked which has the best experience to fix the economy.”

All of the polls suggest that Obama will not win the election on the likeability factor. Those polled see Romney as more competent to manage the economy, and the economy is the number one issue for a vast majority of voters. But these polls do answer Brooks’ question better than Brooks does. ESPN Man? Nice try, Brooks. Apparently Obama’s edge, and Romney’s problem, is that the majority of Americans don’t like a dishonest, untrustworthy weasel who doesn’t care about their needs.

Marie Burns blogs at 


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