Politics, an old cliché holds, is the art of the possible. Achieving the possible is a matter of power. And in a media-saturated democracy, power flows to those with good poll numbers.
Another old saw holds that there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and statistics. It is useful to keep this bit of folk wisdom in mind when considering President Barack Obama's numbers.
Big media (its influence may be waning, but it still exists) has been trying to make much of the fact that while Obama's personal popularity remains high, his approval rating (at 55 percent) is slipping.
That's true. But it is much more of a natural occurrence than an aberration.
Republican and conservatives should note that Obama is in the same zone as were Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush at this point in their administrations. Although Nixon resigned in disgrace and Bush exited in failure, both handily managed re-election.
Democrats and progressives likewise should remember that Obama's approval rating today is higher than President Bill Clinton's (44 percent) was this far into his administration.
So what's the fuss?
Not to be discounted is media's natural inclination to cut a president down to size. Although Obama remains a certified media darling, his very popularity is an invitation to the established punditocracy to joust.
To date, it has been a mismatch.
If President Ronald Reagan proved to be a Michael Jackson on the media dance floor, choreographing a daily message to glide through political thickets, and if Clinton triangulated with a nimble abandon that ultimately wore out the press, then Obama has so far proven to be a opinion master who keeps more positive messages in the air than did any of his predecessors.
Obama also has redefined how politicians use new media. His masterful control of images — especially Flickr slide shows and YouTube videos — in this age of the image allows him to project over corporate media and communicate directly with voters.
Even so, Obama's approval rating has dipped.
A close reading of opinion shows that Obama's support among his core supporters is unwavering. It is support among open-minded conservatives and independents who embraced Obama as the smart person's alternative to his clueless Republican opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, that has shifted. This is, more or less, how politics unfold.
Will health care prove to be Obama's undoing?
There is that possibility. Obama may be misreading his mandate in much the same way that Bush did when he tried to deconstruct and dismantle the Social Security system.
As the Phoenix pointed out two weeks ago (see "What Ails the Health-Care Debate," July 24), one of the problems with the congressional-drafted plan Obama is trying to steer is that it is essentially employer-based. In a nation with an increasingly mobile work force, we need a plan that is portable.
Another problem is cost. Estimates by the highly respected Congressional Budget Office warn that expenses will be much higher than Congress and the White House are forecasting.
Americans have been living beyond their means for 30 years, and are now particularly suspicious of big programs that will lead to even bigger debts. (Currently the US is spending at a rate that is twice its revenues and our deficits are rapidly growing.)
The public trusts Obama more than it trusts Congress on health care. Obama's best hope — probably his only hope — of providing some sort of relief will be to wrest control of this process from congressional Democrats after Labor Day by finally putting forth his own specific plan.
But what about the Republican protesters who are grabbing headlines and TV time?
Bear this in mind: the crowds of white Middle Americans disrupting public meetings across the nation are the same crowds — about 20 percent of the electorate — that believe the filthy lie that Obama's presidency is illegitimate because he was foreign-born (they're wrong).
Rooted in the Regan and Bush philosophy that holds "If it's not Republican it must be illegal," these people are only several steps removed from the Nazi-era brown shirts that birthed fascism in Germany. This mob will not be happy with anything less than white, Christian authoritarianism.
Obama's election was a repudiation of their putrid vision. And there is nothing in the polls to suggest that they are anything but a hate-filled minority.