Last December, Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal and I were talking at a holiday party about the risk that 2013 would be a post-crisis era in which basically good economic news made our jobs boring and diminished audience interest in what we do. Six months later, I think it’s safe to say that the scenario has arrived. The return of 1990s-style scandal politics after long years of “war on terror” and economic crisis is one tell. The larger tell is that the scandals aren’t driving Barack Obama’s approval ratings into the mud.
One interpretation of that is that people don’t care, at all, about the (real) mismanagement at the IRS, the (fake) Benghazi cover-up conspiracy, or the more-detailed-than-ever revelations about the Obama administration’s crackdown on investigative journalism. But that seems unlikely. Certainly I’ve ratcheted my estimate of the administration down a peg or two over some of what’s come out over the past two weeks.
The more reasonable theory, detailed by Nate Silver today, is that losses are simply being offset by improved news about the economy. Certainly we can see that poll questions that drill down specifically into assessments of economic conditions are all pointing up. Normally you’d expect increasing consumer confidence and growing optimism about the state of the economy to lead to rising presidential approval ratings. And anyone who remembers the 1990s will remember that these kind of fundamentals ultimately trump everything else. If things are going well for people in their actual lives, they’ll be relatively content with the powers that be no matter what the news out of congressional hearings is. The bad news for America, the world, and Obama’s approval rating is that the state of the economy in 2013 is nowhere near as good as the state of the economy in 1998.
But it is greatly improved from where we were two years ago. Even better, on the legislative front Congress seems to have turned away from the pointless quest for a grand bargain and toward the quest for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Scandalmania does not appear to be derailing immigration reform. In fact, by de-centering Obama from the process it’s arguably helping immigration reform by keeping the focus on the bipartisan Group of Eight. And immigration reform, unlike a grand bargain, will give the economy a short-term boost and further improve matters.