Harris’ Evidence-Free “Storytelling” Thesis

One frustrating aspect of “horse race” coverage of the U.S. political system is that the people who insist on covering important policy debates as a kind of game are also pretty bad at analyzing the game. Thus, John Harris’ dumb “7 stories Barack Obama doesn’t want told” leads with an assertion about the 2008 election that’s far dumber than any of the seven stories. Harris says that “Presidential politics is about storytelling” and “[n]o one understands this better than Barack Obama and his team, who won the 2008 election in part because they were better storytellers than the opposition.” More recently, however, “Obama’s gift for controlling his image shows signs of faltering.”

Harris has no evidence whatsoever for any of this. And believe it or not, the whole issue of what causes the outcomes of presidential elections is something people have put a good deal of time and energy into studying. And there’s just no reason to believe that winners win because they’re “better storytellers” than the opposition. Obama was from the opposite party of an unpopular incumbent, running at a time of economic distress. Under the circumstances, his victory was very predictable. To be sure, there’s probably something he could have done to lose the race. It might have turned out, for example, that his long-time pastor was a black nationalist prone to saying “God damn America!” from the pulpit or, um, something more politically damaging than that. The point is, this is largely explicable in terms of the fundamentals. There was no great feat. Nor should it surprise anyone that 11 months of deteriorating economic conditions have taken a toll on Obama’s popularity.

Look at Ronald Reagan’s approval rating:

Reagan Job Approval 1

At the time there were probably lots of clever stories written about why Reagan was doing better or worse on whichever day. But looking back at things from 20 years later, the moral of the story seems to be pretty simple “recessions and giant scandals make presidents unpopular.” And of course they do!