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It's the outcomes, stupid

There are a lot of different parts to the government. There's the president, the Congress, the Senate, your governor, the general government itself, and much more. But people aren't very keen on making distinctions between them. As you can see in this graph from Jim Stimson (published at the Monkey Cage):

stimson1-thumb.PNG

What you'll notice there is that people generally approve of all parts of the government at once. The ratings aren't the same for each institution and player, but the trends are pretty similar. That suggests we're not dealing with a discrete and detailed judgment as to how effectively the House of Representatives has conducted its duties in the past year. What we are dealing with, Stimson says, is a verdict on the economy. The following graph charts consumer sentiments against a line averaging approval of all parts of government. Aside from a divergence around 9/11, the symmetry is very tight:

stimson2-thumb.PNG

This is more evidence, I think, for the idea that politicians need to worry less about what the electorate thinks of what they're going to do and more about how well -- and how quickly -- their policies will actually work.

People in Washington spend a lot of time thinking about what political players are doing, and so they concoct elaborate theories of what the voters think about what political players are doing, and then they offer advice on what political players can do to change voters' minds. But all the evidence is that voters don't pay very close attention to politics and are much more interested in the state of the economy than the behavior and emotiveness of politicians.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 18, 2010; 2:53 PM ET
Categories:  Charts and Graphs , Political Science  
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Comments

"But all the evidence is that voters don't pay very close attention to politics and are much more interested in the state of the economy than the behavior and emotiveness of politicians."

Bingo. Obama needs to take a cue from Presidents like FDR and (cough!) Reagan, who understood how to foster a sense of optimism and "accentuate the positive" indicators during tough times.

Obama would have had an even more effective SOTU address if he had borrowed from Ross Perot and showed a few visual aids, like the graphs you have put up today...especially the two good news-bad news (same data) employment stat graphs at Andrew Sullivan's blog.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 18, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

To tie this to the article that you linked to yesterday on David Gergen, at what point do you think most politicians became unable to differentiate the consequence of their policies from "the game" that the Washington establishment plays?

Is this just a simple story of how the establishment started to believe its own nonsense?

It would be like Madoff deciding to invest his stolen dollars in his own company because of how popular it became and how many people trusted him.

Posted by: cbaratta | February 18, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

A bit from the over-the-edge individual here in Austin (it's still on TV live) that crashed his plane into the IRS building:

"Why is it that a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities (and in the case of the GM executives, for scores of years) and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours? Yet at the same time, the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies, are murdering tens of thousands of people a year and stealing from the corpses and victims they cripple, and this country’s leaders don’t see this as important as bailing out a few of their vile, rich cronies. Yet, the political “representatives” (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags is far more accurate) have endless time to sit around for year after year and debate the state of the “terrible health care problem”. It’s clear they see no crisis as long as the dead people don’t get in the way of their corporate profits rolling in."

etc.

So, yeah, people do have some ideas about "policy", and sadly, many of their ideas were fabricated elsewhere for political gamemanship and to gain viewers for sensationalistic shows.

Posted by: HalHorvath | February 18, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

I heard the FBI is removing the letter from the plane-crash individual, but since it is on a screen I have open, I suspect that many thousands or more people already have the letter, and it will widely available.

The local news anchor just said this was the most chilling line:

" Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."

But...for me the more chilling line was this seemingly unimportant bit near the beginning:

"Needless to say, this rant could fill volumes with example after example if I would let it. I find the process of writing it frustrating, tedious, and probably pointless… especially given my gross inability to gracefully articulate my thoughts in light of the storm raging in my head."

The thing is, he isn't really that inarticulate. It seems less crazed than just desperate and misled.

Posted by: HalHorvath | February 18, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

"So, yeah, people do have some ideas about "policy", and sadly, many of their ideas were fabricated elsewhere for political gamemanship and to gain viewers for sensationalistic shows."Posted by: HalHorvath

Or maybe crazy people come from all idealogical points on the spectrum....like ardent Obama supporter, Harvard educated Amy Bishop, the U of Alabama shooter.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 18, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

"I think, for the idea that politicians need to worry less about what the electorate thinks of what they're going to do and more about how well -- and how quickly -- their policies will actually work."

Yes. Obama and Biden most certainly should not have promised that the stimulus package would keep unemployment below 8% and then later excuse the failure of their policy by claiming they didn't know at the time how bad things were. Even though they campaigned on how bad things were.

So, yes. And if HCR passes, Dems had absolutely, positively, better hope it works and works quickly. :)

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 18, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

By discounting the process in favor of your desired outcome you are basically arguing that the ends justify the means. So sit down, shut up, and take your medicine because we know best you ignorant rubes.

thanks, but no thanks.

The problem with your analysis is that voters simply don't believe the solution is going to work. And "trust me" from a bunch of politicians doesn't cut it anymore.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | February 18, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

It's not the outcomes at all. It's whether the politicians and the media are telling you the outcomes are good.

Remember how bad they said it was when unemployment hit 6.5% under Bush? Gosh, things were really bad then, weren't they?

Posted by: cpurick | February 18, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

Your point that outcomes drive approval is valid, and the first graph showing virtually zero differentiation between various government branches is excellent. It also highlights the extent to which the Washington game is played over the margins of political opinions and polls.

However, elections tend to be marginal events. I think most politicians in Washington don't believe they can affect outcomes sufficiently rapidly or radically to produce a decisive effect on popular approval; plus that approval will be dispersed across the Washington establishment. Thus they do their best to play politics with the current situation, to gain the marginal advantage required to retain or gain power.

Posted by: nicholasrandel | February 19, 2010 5:58 AM | Report abuse

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