Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why Obama's Poll Numbers Keep Falling

One of the interesting facets of the Obama administration has been how he’s managed to make his poll numbers not only hit bottom, but how he’s managed to keep them there without a single upward blip. Some people say it’s his leftist politics. Other say it’s his incompetence or his arrogance. But I think the answer lies in something far more interesting. I think the answer lies in a very famous book from 1513 A.D.

Niccolo Machiavelli has gone down as history’s most cynical thinker. Indeed, many people claim that Machiavelli was an evil man whose views are the stuff of dictators and tyrants and deceivers. But that’s the ignorant view. The reality is that Machiavelli was a keen observer of the human condition, and he well understood the relationship between rulers and their subjects. And it is Obama’s failure to understand the principles laid out by Machiavelli that have caused his steady unpopularity.

In his seminal work, The Prince, Machiavelli makes two key points about leadership. First, if a leader is faced with taking negative or unpleasant actions, the leader must do so swiftly, quickly, and all at once. The leader should never drag out such actions. But, secondly, if the leader has the opportunity to take pleasant actions, i.e. to hand out goodies or patronage, the leader should stretch that out over a long period of time. Obama violates both points.

1. Cruel Actions

Machiavelli warns that a leader who must take “cruel action” must be decisive in their actions, must act swiftly and effectively, and that these cruel actions must be short-lived. The reason is simple. Cruel actions anger people and generate fear.

Think about this in terms of your job. If you came to work one day to find that your boss fired half the staff, this might be startling, but it won’t terrify you so long as you know that these are the only firings that will happen. But if your boss starts firing people every day, that will terrify you, whether you are likely to be fired or not. The reason is that human beings crave certainty. Even though we may hate the idea that so many of our colleagues have been fired all at once, the first scenario still gives us the comfort of knowing that we will not be next. Combined with the remarkable human ability to put unpleasantness behind us (and to turn a blind eye to injustice that does not affect us directly), this scenario allows time to heal the wounds and happiness to return.

But in the second scenario, where the boss keeps firing people, there is no certainty. Thus, we instinctively fear that one day it will be us. Moreover, the unpleasantness of seeing our colleagues fired cannot be healed by time because the wound is refreshed every day that more people are fired. Thus, even if it's the same number of people fired, the "moral" effects are much worse in the second scenario.

The same is true in politics. If you keep raising taxes over and over, people will fear that their taxes will be next. If you cut benefits or fire employees or impose regulations, the results are the same. The longer you stretch out the pain, the more upset people will be, the greater the number of people who will be upset, and the longer the pain will last.

Obama, however, fails to grasp this concept.

When Obama came to power, there were a lot of “cruel actions” that had to be taken. We had a recession that was being prolonged with overly-generous government benefits. We had a banking industry that was out of control and sucking the public treasury dry. We had foreign “friends” who were harming our interests. We had a public sector that was over-paid and under-worked. We had a deficit that was too large to be sustained. Thus, Obama needed to cut federal pay and benefits, fire workers, cut off the banks, regulate and break up the “too big to fail” institutions, and slap down our ungrateful friends. He did none of these things. But the need to do them didn’t go away. So rather than taking these actions and getting them over with, Obama now imposes the prospect that he will be taking these steps over the next one, two, and three years. This is exactly what Machiavelli warned never to do. Rather than inflicting the pain once on a defined set of people, Obama has created a situation of uncertainty where no one knows who will be next to suffer, and everyone fears it might be them, and no one knows when the pain will end.

Even the legislation Obama proposes violates this principle. For example, ObamaCare slowly hands out the pain by triggering new provisions slowly, year after year. The same is true with his proposed cap and trade system, which brings on an increasing amount of regulation and restrictions each year, and with each of his other proposals; they drip out the pain like Chinese water torture.

Thus, Obama has undertaken a course of action that leads to a fearful and angry population that is nervously awaiting the next cruel act to beset them. And time can never heal these wounds, because they are constantly refreshed.

2. Patronage

Obama also fails to grasp the other side of the coin. Machiavelli tells us that when a leader hands out benefits, i.e. patronage, they should do so slowly over time. There are several reasons for this. First, this prevents recipients from getting everything they are going to get at once and then becoming ungrateful. Keep in mind that the same human trait that lets us move beyond bad things also makes good feelings fade into memory; hence the adage “what have you done for me lately?” Spreading out benefits keeps those good feelings fresh. Moreover, if people come to expect (or depend upon) favors from their ruler, then they will be loath to replace them. But if they think the benefits have stopped, then they have no reason to remain loyal.

Obama is doing this wrong as well. When he came to power, he handed out all kinds of benefits on day one. He gave GM to the unions. He gave a wad of cash to various interest groups. He handed out massive increases in benefits, pay raises to government employees, money to states and businesses, and he promised free lunches to everyone in the form of a massive stimulus plan to spur job growth. But that was then and this is now, and what has he given lately? Indeed, since the golden handouts of the first few weeks, Obama has given out nothing, and there’s nothing left on the schedule to be handed out.

Think about this. If you were an Obama supporter, either on the left or the near-left, what has Obama given you since that first week and what has he done to make you think you’ll get anything else if you continue to support him? Environmental protection? No. Jobs? No. Any more increases coming in benefits? No. You got everything you’re ever going to get.


This is why Obama’s popularity has steadily collapsed and why it stays down so relentlessly. He has created an environment of anger and fear by slowly dripping out cruel acts, and by delaying others that everyone knows must still be coming. At the same time, whatever benefits he handed out when he first took office have long since faded into memory and there is no prospect of any more coming. These are the exact conditions that Machiavelli warned his Prince to avoid, and this is why Obama's poll numbers stay down without respite.

Who knew an ancient text could teach us so much?


Tennessee Jed said...

He certainly qualifies on the cruel action front. Modern day media methods exacerbate this problem for him. Bad news is loved by the media. They are all copycats so the same bad story gets endlessly milked in print, on the net, and on the tube.

No president has been more blatant in his pandering to his clientele and ONLY his clientele. His oratory, once considered a great asset, now only serves to parody himself.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Very true. The ability of modern communication techniques to spread news and the penchant of the media to spread the same bad news over and over again will only make these effects worse.

And you're right that his rhetoric really is aimed exclusively at his clientele at this point. That doesn't help him in the least because his clientele is not a majority of the electorate. Moreover, since all he's offering these days is talk, they really don't have any reason to stick with him and they will soon start looking for someone else to promise them more -- like a Hillary Clinton or whoever else may emerge.

CrispyRice said...

Interesting take, Andrew.

But your 1st point gets back to the entire way of liberal thinking. How could they admit that things would've been better off (ie shorter, more dramatic pain, but let the healing begin) if they had just let the banks fail in the 1st place. No, can't do that, there very theory says that they have to meddle. Which only makes things worse.

Personally, I'm thrilled to see his numbers plummeting. :D

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I'm pretty thrilled about his falling numbers too. In fact, I'm starting to believe that November will be huge for us -- I'm putting together an article on all the evidence for that.

The thing Obama should have done is to come to town with his agenda already written. They he and the Democrats should have put all the nasty stuff they wanted -- cap and trade, ObamaCare, financial regs, etc., all at once in the first month or so. That would have given the public 2 years to adjust before the November elections. Then he should have spent the next two years handing out benefits to his supporters slowly.

But he did this backwards. He gave out the goodies right away and dragged out the bad stuff. That's horrible psychology and will keep the public very upset him, while simultaneously, his supporters will begin to care less and less.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Crispy, as for this being an interesting take, I like to occasionally offer things from a different perspective than you're likely to get anywhere else. This is one of those posts.

BevfromNYC said...

All of this keeps pointing up what a really poor politician he is and that is what really surprises me the most. I am just dumbfounded how bad he is at politicking. I didn't agree with Bill Clinton, but he was (and is)a consummate politician.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, It really does, doesn't it? This more than anything shows that his "political instincts" are poor. In other words, regardless of ideology, he's showing that he simply doesn't have any idea how politics works and how humans react.

In all honesty, I'm not amazed that Obama is such a bad politician. Everything about his past screamed "incompetent and too arrogant to see that" to me. And I've been saying that since before the election. BUT, what does amaze me is how poor his whole team is. Even if Obama is the world's biggest fool, a good team could still protect him from himself and steer him right.

But his team has made mistake after mistake -- not just getting everything they've done wrong, but actually finding ways to do the worst possible thing in most instances.

What makes this even stranger, is that they are repeating the very mistakes that Bush made. It's like they weren't even paying attention during the last eight years?!

And you're right about Clinton. He was the opposite of Obama. His political leanings aside, Clinton was a master at connecting with the public and shifting blame or taking credit where needed. Obama is like the inverse-Clinton in that.

Ed said...

Interesting analysis. You certainly don't get this at other places. I haven't read Machiavelli, but it definitely makes sense. Thanks.

BevfromNYC said...

Newsflash: The House passed the Disclose Act...

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Thanks. I'm glad you liked it. I think it's interesting to consider. It's also interesting that no one in the administration figured this out before they acted!

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I'm not surprised. I guess we'll see what happens next?

By the way, I also saw that the Republicans defeated the Democrat's latest stimulus/"jobs" bill. Good for them. Of course, now the Democrats are going to run around and whine about the Republicans causing the upcoming recession.

StanH said...

Machiavelli, has taught many a politician how to manipulate the public. It fits very nicely with the left, that’s what makes it incredible, that Barry doesn’t follow the Machiavellian discipline. The incompetence of his advisors, and cabinet secretaries, is a sight to behold, it would be funny if all our hitches weren’t connected to his get-a-long…”so goes Barry, so goes the country.”

He made a colossal tactical era, in not factoring in “us!” We the People, are up on our hind legs and pushing back, withholding our consent, saying no to their leftist ideology, and stymied his agenda. This “prince” has a tin ear, and has chosen to be adversarial with 60% of the electorate, and I believe will be soundly defeated in two election cycles. The trick then, too get the crap back in the horse, challenging…yes! …but it can be done.

Come on November.

Individualist said...

Interesting Points Andrew

I personally think Obama's team is trying to concentrate on the fear side of Machiavelli's treatise. What I hear from Obama is threats and more threats but people are starting to figure out its harder for him to back them up then just state them.

I am told MAchiavelli wrote a book on Republics but I have never seen it in print.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, It is amazing that no one on Team Obama seems to get these principles. They've been well known principles for 500 years now.

In fact, it seems like they think that the public will simply accept whatever they do. Talk about a miscalculation! I've never seen the public as agitated in my life. And the Democrats only have themselves to blame.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, Thanks!

I think Obama is practicing the politics of fear, yes -- especially recently, with his claims that the Republicans will caused a double-dip recession.

But he's utterly clueless when it comes to following the principles of Machiavelli. If he understood Machiavelli, he would have done all his nasty plans up front. Instead, he keeps handing out pain. . . keeping people upset.

I'm not sure which book on republics that would be. He did write extensively about military and political matters. Interestingly, "The Prince" wasn't published until after he died.

Tennessee Jed said...

I couldn't help remembering after reading Bev's comment just how much of a set up the 2008 presidential election was. Americanse used to instant gratification were developing war fatigue, the start of a down cycle in the economy, and a mainstream media determined to amplify the negative and downplay anything positive. Time for a change; through in a little hope and viola-- a Democratic landslide. And yet, for all that, while Obama's win was solid, it was hardly overwhelming. His scriptwriters had him hint at governing from the center, clearly a sham.

It was much easier to campaign fom the outside with vague bromides of doing things differently and making empty promises. Governing during times with significant problems is so so much harder.

As to Andrew's point in his reply, maybe Obama is a complete thin skinned sycophant. Who knows, maybe the people around him may be afraid to do anything but what he asks for much like the staffers who fed unlimited drugs to Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Lindsey Lohan. Whether true or not, like everybody else here, if he's going to hell in a bucket, I'm clearly enjoying his slide and hope he doesn't enjoy the ride.

MegaTroll said...

Cool article. This explains a lot. I like the bit at the end about "what can we learn from an old book." Ha! Evvverything!

Ed said...

It is interesting and I'm glad you write these pieces. I like the variety you keep giving us.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, I'm glad you got that. Most of our "wisdom" (i.e. philosophy, morality, ethics, and understanding of human nature) comes from centuries of collected wisdom and thinking.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Thanks. I'm glad you like it, and thanks for commenting. I'll have to keep searching my brain for more articles like this.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I've said this before: When I first saw Obama speak and especially after I saw him try to answer questions about what he planned to do, it struck me that he was exactly like the young, inexperience attorneys I knew. They came into the profession sure that everyone else had always done “it” wrong, and they were going to show the world how “it’s” done. This arrogance came from the fact that (1) they thought a lot of themselves and (2) they had no idea what they didn’t know.

The biggest tip off was that when you asked them what they planned to do in a particular instance, all you could get out of them was “I’ll get in there and I’ll convince them.” That was exactly what Obama kept saying.

And as one might expect, few of these arrogant newbies turned out to be competent, and none of them was able to compete with the older attorneys who had been around the block.

That’s what told me Obama was going to be trouble.

But I assumed that his team was a lot more competent than that. I figured that because they were bright enough to sell Obama the empty suit, they had a finger on the pulse of the public. But it turns out that they didn’t. In fact, I still suspect that they never thought they would win, and they literally weren’t prepared for the job.

As for the public, I think you’re right. I honestly think that Bush was so incompetent and seemingly corrupt, and the economy was so bad and the wars seemed to be spinning out of control, that the public was ready to give any Democrat who sounded rational a chance. Obama has blown that chance.

BoilerRoomElf said...

Hey Bossman - let's just say that your management style suddenly makes more sense to us -- and we think we've been had!

Any chance on getting some copies of that book into the Boiler Room Library??

AndrewPrice said...

Boiler Room Elves, I have no idea what you're talking about -- we would never use psychology against our employees!

In any event, I'd be happy to get you copies of that book. I'll get you a couple pages soon as soon as I can, and I'll send you a few more every so often. . . ;-)

Individualist said...

Discourses (I-IX)


I found thia. Perhaps it was subject matter in his other works that I was told aobut which is why I could not find it.

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew: Don't look now, but the E-L-V-E-S have learned to R-E-A-D. If they can read The Prince, then they can read their C-O-N-T-R-A-C-T. I suggest sending down more Makers' Mark to keep them occupied.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, That could be it. I haven't read the rest of his works. Interesting defense of Romulus though!

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Good idea!! LOL! And don't worry about "The Prince", I'll send them a copy of something else, something that can't cause any problem, maybe something by Karl Marx or who's that guy. . . Alinsky.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Whether it's Machiavelli or How To Win Friends and Influence People, the simple fact is that Obama has zero managerial talent and no genuine executive experience. It's like promoting the stock boy to CEO and expecting him to know anything more than where to put the next box of merchandise.

StanH said...

One final point! Lets not forget that 93% of Barry’s staff have never held a private sector job, “zero” real life experience. In the real world there are truly winners, and losers, you screw up, you pay the piper, either sink, or swim. In Barry’s world, life is theoretical, or as he said a “college seminar,” where screw ups lead to hearty debate “talk,” with zero real consequences.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, On thing is absolutely certain, he has no experience dealing with people and it shows.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I'm not sure that business experience is necessary per se. BUT, it does provide a crash course in everything you do need to know. And what you need to know is how to deal with people. . . all people, not just your friends. Business teaches you how to deal with friends, fake friends, people who rely on you, people oppose you, people who are leaders, people who are followers, people who are competitors. And it teaches you how to do all of this while trying to balance personal goals with broader goals.

There is little else in the provides you with those lessons in life. And the experience he and his staff have do not provide those kinds of lessons. Academia is full of group think, personal goals but no group goals, and it's a consequence free environment. So it really doesn't prepare you.

JB1000 said...

No argument about your two points. For me though, Washington seems to have no clue that things are connected. They stick their foot in the middle of something and then seem completely stunned when an unintended effect pops up.

When Health Care passed and those large corporations announced large charges in the next year, one Senator (Waxman?) planned to drag them before his committee and read them the riot act. I was almost disappointed then someone told him the companies were only following the law and he cancelled the hearings.

And next year, when the tax cuts lapse, the economy double-dips and tax revenues fall, they will be surprised because that was not what they planned!

No battle plan is supposed to survive contact with the enemy but their battle plan will not suvive contact with the paper it is written on.

AndrewPrice said...

JB1000, LOL! Well said, and very true.

That's the problem with static thinking, which is a Democratic hallmark. They think that the way things are now is how they will always be, unless we specifically change them. So if we raise a tax, all those people who worked so hard before the tax went into effect, will continue to work just as hard in the future because that's what they wanted to do -- and the tax doesn't change that. It never dawns on them that the public will reassess whether or not it makes sense for them to continue to work with the tax in place.

That's the problem with almost all of their thinking -- it's static, i.e. "nothing changes unless we specifically put it into law."

That's why they don't understand incentives, why their policies blow up in their faces, and why they are so completely stunned by "unforeseen" consequences, which everyone else saw and warned them about.

It would have been interesting to see Waxman squirm in those hearings, but I understand that they dropped the hearings when they heard that the people they intended to call weren't going to play along.

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