Rosenblum: Approval ratings are a fleeting viewpoint of political leaders

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2014 - 10:02 PM
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Only 22 percent of people in 1952 gave Harry S. Truman a job well done.

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Gov. Mark Dayton received the happy news in mid-February that 58 percent of Minnesotans approve of the job he’s doing. It’s the highest job approval rating of his term, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

Good for the governor, and good for the rest of us. Regardless of our politics, I see an exciting takeaway here.

Clearly, it’s time to lower our personal standards.

Hit the 58-percent mark as a parent, cook, driver, spouse, caregiver, employee, boss? I can do that!

In truth, I’ll keep trying to shoot higher. Plus, I don’t really envy politicians, Dayton included, who must endure this regular monitoring of their leadership by the fickle masses — who would be us.

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president? How about George W. Bush? How about Harry S. Truman?

Doesn’t matter who is, or was, in the hot seat. We’re a tough crowd.

The approval ratings for nearly every president since 1946 looks like the landscape of the Tetons — up and down and down and up — unless you’re Congress, whose trajectory is pretty much just down.

One recent poll found that the public had a higher opinion of root canals, head lice and colonoscopies than of Congress, although Congress did fare better than the Kardashians.

Fair feedback? Not entirely.

First, we don’t tend to be polled about the boring, essential stuff, that just works, thanks to quietly good leadership.

“The real essence of government is what most people don’t see,” said David Schultz, a political-science professor at Hamline University and author of the new book, “Election Law and Democratic Theory.”

Schultz, who has trained government officials, said news like “the garbage was picked up, the fire was put out, the bad guys were put away,” is not news at all, and certainly not worthy of a poll.

But leaders pushing or opposing the Affordable Care Act? Gun control? Tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans? We definitely have something to say to a pollster about that.

Still, we need to be cautious because our opinions on even hot-button topics tend to ebb and flow.

“There are always the people on the left and right who stay there,” said Kevin Sauter, professor of communication at the University of St. Thomas.

“But in the large middle, people slip back and forth, depending on what’s going on at the time.”

He uses Benghazi as an example. The tragic, Sept. 11, 2012, attack, killing four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, was first attributed to the work of a frenzied, but spontaneous, crowd. The killings later were attributed to Islamic militants.

“Polls do a great job, in terms of sampling and getting a sense of what people think, but we don’t always know what we think,” Sauter said, “especially when we are confronted with new information.”

“With Benghazi, more and more information will trigger a change.”

Closer to home, disapproval of the Affordable Care Act could be understood if you were put on hold for three days attempting to enroll. And a shift to relief could be understood if you were polled just after seeing a doctor for the first time in a year.

“Attitudes are driven so much by emotion, snap decisions and what we just heard on the radio,” Sauter said. “That’s why we flip and flop. ‘This is how I feel now.’ A few days later, we pop back to where we were.”

No one better exemplifies the darts and laurels of public sentiment than Truman. As president, he enjoyed a stellar postwar approval rating of 87 percent in 1945 before plummeting to 22 percent in 1952.

Reputable pollsters know that approval ratings are not meant to be far-reaching, long-ranging predictions of anything. It’s best if we view them, Schultz and Sauter agree, as “snapshots” of a moment in time.

“If Dayton steps in one mud puddle,” Sauter said, “his numbers will likely change.”

The largely American invention of approval ratings is traced back to the 1930s, but the concept actually reaches back further, to the 19th century and Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker who was fascinated by America “and what the majority believes,” Schultz said.

Since then, we’ve put “enormous faith,” he said, in polls that tell us what we believe, at least for the next 10 minutes.

One thing we can believe is that we are lucky to dodge approval ratings, save the annual job review, Facebook “likes” for our cat video or sassy comment from the back seat of the car.

A 58-percent approval rating, Schultz said, “sounds pretty good, but it means that 42 percent of the people don’t like you. When a politician breaks through the 50-percent level, that’s considered good.

“It’s a bizarre barometer of success.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum

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