September 13, 2004


Bush likability trumping record: It isn't really his record that matters, but the great equalizer: the Bush persona. (Dante Chinni, 9/14/04, CS Monitor)

Deficits from surpluses? Botched life-and-death decisions? CEOs have been fired for much less. So seeing as we're all good, business-savvy board members of America Inc., why does the president enjoy a lead in the polls? Because, in the end, for all the chatter about how we want to run government like a business, many of us don't want it to.

For many Americans it isn't really the Bush record or policies that matter, it's that great equalizer: the Bush persona. Even when people don't agree with the president, they often say they believe he's sincere. And in a world full of pseudo-events, pseudo-people, and even pseudo-places, that can be pretty compelling.

Many voters have made the decision that, after looking at the options, they don't mind seeing Mr. Bush's face staring back at them from the front page of the newspaper every day through 2008. He may be wrong, sometimes on serious things, but he believes he's doing the right thing and he follows his heart. And in troubled times they find that refreshing. In other words, they simply like him - or at least the image of him as reflected in the media. It's hard to know someone you have never met.

If someone had told you on the afternoon of 9-11 that during the rest of the President's first term there would not be a subsequent al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil and that the economic conditions--unemployment rate, interest rate, inflation rate, GDP growth rate--on Election Day '04 would be as good as they had been for any incumbent president since Coolidge, would you have said that he was likely to win re-election solely because of his personality?

MORE (via Robert Schwartz):
Do Newspapers Make Good News Look Bad? (EDUARDO PORTER, 9/12/04, NY Times)

In a new paper, Kevin A. Hassett and John R. Lott Jr., economists at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative research organization in Washington, say they have discovered that economic reporters commit the same archetypal sin: slanting the news unequivocally in favor of the Democrats.

How can a nugget of news like the economy's addition of 308,000 new jobs in March - the biggest monthly gain in about four years - yield a report that The Associated Press labeled "Bond prices tumble on jobs data"? Bias, the researchers suspected.

The two economists combed through 389 newspapers and A.P. reports contained in the LexisNexis database from January 1991 through May 2004, during the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They picked out headlines about gross domestic product growth, unemployment, retail sales and orders of durable goods and classified the headlines' depiction of the economy as either positive, negative, neutral or mixed. Then they crunched some numbers.

They found that Mr. Clinton received better headlines than the two Republican presidents. Even after adjusting the data to compensate for differences in economic performance under the three presidents, the Republicans received 20 to 30 percent fewer positive headlines, on average, for the same type of news, they concluded.

For instance, they said, the unemployment rate in the Clinton administration averaged 5.2 percent, only three-tenths of a percentage point less than it has under George W. Bush. But while 44 percent of Mr. Clinton's headlines on unemployment were positive, only 23 percent of President Bush's headlines on the subject have been upbeat.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2004 8:39 PM

Now that it appears Kerry is heading for the ropes, it's interesting how various media analyses are popping up that chalk Bush's poll ratings to "soft" virtues like his likability and common touch rather than policy or otherwise "hard" gauges of presidential excellence -- as if they'r loth to admit that folks like him for substanial and admirable reasons.

Posted by: Twn at September 13, 2004 8:55 PM

It's easier to do it this way, the same way they did with Reagan in 1984, because it allows the media to basically say "The voters are so stupid they can be fooled by the politician with the nicest smile and upbeat personality," without having to spell out their true annoyance with hte voting public.

Of course, the reason why Kerry chose Edwards as his running mate was because he had the nicest smile and upbeat personality, and that doesn't seem to have budged the polls much, does it?

Posted by: John at September 13, 2004 9:04 PM

Excellent point, Twn.

Posted by: oj at September 13, 2004 9:08 PM

Both Twn and John are spot on. The MSM is in deep denial. They cannot abide the truth, that George W. Bush is winning because his policies have been successful and because his politics are a closer fit to the American Electorate than that of his opponents. Since they cannot abide the truth they must come up with a reasonable lie to tell themselves, hence their admiration of the Bush persona.

Posted by: Robert Modean at September 13, 2004 9:51 PM

And on Nov 3, Dan Rather (if he is still around) will say, "The American voters pulled another temper tantrum yesterday."

Posted by: ray at September 13, 2004 10:05 PM

Agree with TWN and John - the MSM can't say Bush is doing a good job so they fall back on the voters are idiots and will vote for Bush because is a likeable fellow.
RAy - I think it was Peter Jennings who said that after the '94 elections but your point is well taken.

Posted by: AWW at September 13, 2004 10:18 PM

Liberals cannot win actually advocating the policies they believe in; therefore, they pretend during elections to be some brand of conservative. A popular one being "fiscal conservative." Kerry is simply the least believable of the DNC's various conservative dopplegangers.

Clinton, on the other hand, was masterful at appearing to be conservative. Al Gore was (at least at the time) better at it than he is today.

Posted by: AML at September 13, 2004 11:43 PM

The last example in the main post isn't very convincing - While it may be true that the average unemployment rate was 5.2% under Clinton, it was at 4% during his last year, and that's what people remember.
If it had been 4% in '94, and 7% in '00, even if the average had stayed at 5.2%, people would barely remember the 4%, and certainly wouldn't vote based on it.
Thus, it's proof of human nature, not press bias.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 14, 2004 12:20 AM

The Fed had forced the slowdown by November '00 but Gore still won.

Posted by: oj at September 14, 2004 7:05 AM

And the trivia contest winner is ... AAW. (Scroll down -- it's highlighted in yellow.)

Is oj is channeling Cheney or being snide?

Posted by: Uncle Bill at September 14, 2004 9:09 AM

The study covers January, 1991 through May, 2004. This obviously includes the entire Clinton presidency, not just the last few years when unemployment hit a cyclical low. So it's a fair comparison to use the average unemployment rate for his complete time in the White House.

Clinton did get a relatively soft press on economics throughout both terms. The media tended to blame his setbacks - like the loss of Congress in 1994 - on social issues like gays in the military.

Posted by: Casey Abell at September 14, 2004 11:27 AM