Popularity Fallacy

Jeez, can we knock it off about Bill Clinton’s amazing popularity, already?

You see the talk everywhere these days, including most recently in a column by Maureen Dowd in Sunday’s New York Times.

“As Hillary stumbles and President Obama slumps,” Dowd writes, “Bill Clinton keeps getting more popular.”  As evidence, Dowd cites a Wall Street Journal poll from June ranking the “most admired” presidents of the last 25 years (Clinton won by a mile); a YouGov survey measuring the perceived “intelligence” of the last eight commanders-in-chief (again, Clinton finished first); and a May Washington Post poll putting Clinton’s overall “favorable” rating at a 21-year high.

Indeed, strictly to the question, “Do most people today like Bill Clinton?” the answer is an indisputable “Yes,” and it hardly depends on the meaning of the word “like.”

However, I would argue the question itself is a silly and fairly useless one, as it is with regards to every living (or recently dead) ex-president.

Of course Bill Clinton is more popular today than he was, say, during the “Gingrich revolution” in 1994 or the Lewinsky fiasco in 1998.  Of course he enjoys more general goodwill than President Obama or possibly-future-President Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton left the White House on January 20, 2001.  Know what he’s been doing in the 13-and-a-half years since?

Not being president, that’s what.

George W. Bush, for his part, ended his presidency with an approval rating of 34 percent.  Today, that number is 53 percent.  What has Bush been doing these past five years to merit such a rise in stature?

Not being president and painting.

Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, also clocked approval numbers in the mid-30s during his final months on the job.  Today, he is nearly as admired as Clinton.  What’s he been up to?

Jumping out of airplanes, fishing, and (all together now) not being president.

Of course, I am being a tad unfair and simplistic.  America’s modern-day ex-presidents have, to varying degrees, done a great deal of good work after leaving office, for which they deserve kudos and a second look.  (Jimmy Carter has probably accomplished more in “retirement” than half our presidents did while in power.)

What is more, my “not being president” theory doesn’t even begin to address the large variance in overall perception among the many former presidents under examination (e.g.  Clinton ranks considerably higher than Carter), and the myriad possible explanations for it.

But the fact remains that nearly every president in modern history has become more admired in retirement than he often (or ever) was while in office.  To this extent, I think my reductionist hypothesis holds, and I’m sticking to it.

Consider:  To assume the presidency is to become the servant of each and every citizen of these United States, and to be personally responsible for their well-being (as far as they’re concerned, at least) and that of the country as a whole.  To be president is to be constantly photographed and broadcast, to be forever seen, heard and discussed, and to be drenched in a bottomless well of gripes and crises from every corner of the known universe.

However, the moment your term expires, all of that goes away.  To become an ex-president is to be freed not only from the duties and burdens of the office, but also from any expectations of leadership.  You can disappear into the woods, and no one will go looking for you.  You can play golf and eat junk food and no one will give you a second thought.  Constitutionally-speaking, a former president doesn’t have to do a damn thing for the rest of his life, and many have been quite happy to oblige themselves.

Long story short (too late?), we Americans approve of our former chief executives because we have no immediate or compelling reason not to.  Because they no longer wield supreme influence over our daily lives.  Because they are no longer on every TV screen every hour of every day.  Because they have transitioned from celebrities with power to mere celebrities.  Because their every move and every word are no longer of any relevance to our own existence, and maybe—at least in some cases—because we have forgotten the days when they did.

Today, Bill Clinton’s long-windedness and snark are adorable.  Would we feel the same way if he were employing them back in the Oval Office on the public dime?

George W. Bush has garnered near-universal praise for his marked disinterest in the nuances of foreign policy in his time away from Washington, even though this same quality yielded a decidedly different response when he was squarely in the middle of the action.

Time may not heal all wounds, but it can certainly numb them and render them moot.  As Paul McCartney said, reflecting on his years with the Beatles, “You always forget the bad bits.”

As we now consider the supposed “inevitability” of Clinton’s leading lady in her possible campaign for president, let us bear in mind that Hillary Clinton’s own popularity—not as high as her husband’s, but certainly an improvement over President Obama’s—is largely the product of her nearly six-year absence from the rough-and-tumble world of retail politics.  Once and if she returns to the arena, are the Democratic primary voters who so loathed her in 2008 going to be able to forgive and forget this time around?  Or is the thawing of their icy hatred contingent on her present status as an above-the-fray figure?

I think it is all-too-obvious that our views of one famous person or other are shaped by that person’s role in our own lives, and that the more benign and unobtrusive such a person is, the more popular he or she tends to be.

So stop talking about Bill Clinton’s enduring popularity as if it’s some sort of anomaly or in any way newsworthy.  It’s not and it’s not.  Rather, it is exactly what you would expect, particularly for a guy who wants nothing more than to be liked and who will go to extraordinary lengths to make it so.

A world leader being relieved of his power and becoming less admired as a result?  Now that would be news.

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