President Obama’s job approval numbers haven fallen since the killing of Osama bin Laden, but, given the state of the economy, they aren’t all that low. In fact, Frank Newport of Gallup says Obama is overperforming, given where other presidents have been. Jonathan Bernstein adds his own explanation and provides some links to other discussions.
But while these commentators offer interesting insights about partisan differences in approval ratings, Obama’s political skills, and the continuing tendency for people to see the economic troubles as not his doing, there is another possibility that’s been overlooked.
This other explanation is grounded in a particular cognitive tendency — to think in terms of comparisons.
Commentators have given a lot of attention to certain cognitive tendencies in politics. For instance, citizens may be affected by confirmation bias, so that they take a mass of different information and turn it into support for their already exisiting positions. And people are resistant to changing ideas so they feel cognitive dissonance when their views are challenged.
But confirmation biases and cognitive dissonance are only a few of the common cognitive tendencies identified by cognitive psychologists.
Another is to make assessments by contrasting one item with another. The contrast effect is often studied in terms of contrasting the weight or color of an item. For instance, a rock will be judged heavier if the person has just picked up a lighter item than if the person had picked up something closer in weight.
And contrasts also affect other sort of evaluations.
Regarding Obama, my hypothesis is that his job evaluations have done as well as they have because people are observing other politicians and political movements. At this point, the comparison is probably less to our previous president, George W. Bush and more oriented toward today’s political actors. And of today’s politicians, a very available comparator is the tea party and prominent tea party politicians. This group is a strong element of the Republican party, seeming to drive policy. Moreover, tea party politicians are in the media a lot and what they say is very vivid, thus making their statements easily heard, remembered, and repeated.
While Obama’s political skills and persona play a role in keeping his job approval from falling to “normal” levels for these conditions, he is also blessed by having tea party opponents as a key contrast.
One more thing: After the Republican nominee is selected, he or she likely will be the main contrast. The Obama re-election will be helped by having a nominee that continues this contrast pattern, someone like Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. But even with another nominee, the Obama campaign will work to define the candidate in a contrasting way that’s most helping to the president’s re-election chances.