Not a Bad Tactician

Obama's Mysterious Popularity, Part 3

This is the third in a series seeking to understand President Obama's high popularity ratings. Part one here. Part two here.

Yet I fear there is something more to Obama's 60% rating than the usual post-reelection bump. Since voting day, the president has maneuvered his Republican opponents into a series of battles in which - first - they took the unpopular side and - second - they then surrendered. They ended looking both extreme and weak. The same thing is on the way to happening with the sequester and the risk of a government shutdown.

Politicians try to define, not only themselves, but their opponents. "You're either with us or you are with the terrorists" is one of the most basic of all political frames.

Thanks to their great visibility and their power to initiate legislation and regulation, presidents enjoy a special advantage in the definition contest. The non-presidential party must adapt to this tactical reality, choosing its battles and spokespeople carefully.

In the Obama era, however, the non-presidential party has played badly, overwhelmed both by miscalculations of its own - and by a media environment in which radio and TV talkers can elbow politicians aside more easily than ever.

Since the defeat in the November election, a defeat that came as a surprise and shock to most leading Republicans, the GOP has found itself even more disarrayed than ever - enabling the president to define himself more freely than ever, and to define his opponents more negatively than ever.