Truth over Happiness

First and foremost, Americans want honesty from the Oval Office

Ok, so maybe Americans do like happy talk. That, anyway, is what the pundits and the pols (including a former president) have been telling President Obama ever since his relatively somber inaugural address—lighten up, fella, let’s hear more of that ‘yes we can’ talk!

As widely noted, President Obama responded to these concerns, including with some “made-for-applause” lines in his address to Congress. “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he assured his listeners. “…We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal.” Etc.

Instant polling appeared to confirm the predicted positive response. The CBS News/Knowledge Networks poll, for a fast example, found that, among its sample of speech watchers (38 percent Democrats, 26 percent Republicans and 36 percent independents) an overwhelming 80 percent said they approved of the president’s plan for dealing with the economic crisis. Prior to the speech, 63 percent approved.

Still, unwilling to abandon the tough-minded, fact-based approach that characterized the opening weeks of his presidency, Obama administered an even larger dose of downers: “None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy.” Etc.

“He attempted to be the grown-up in the room, willing to accept responsibility and prodding others to do the same,” observed the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein. But do Americans really want to be governed by a grown-up—especially one who goes so far as to admit that “My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue.”?

Remember how the press and the public beat up on Jimmy Carter when he worried about a “crisis of confidence” infecting the nation? Didn’t the country breathe a collective sigh of relief when Ronald Reagan exuded optimism from the bully pulpit? Since then, such boosterism seems almost a matter of course. As the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan put it, “What was a necessary pep-talk in the 1980s from Reagan became calcified into a dogma that verges on national self-idolatry.”

The record in fact shows that how Americans react to tough talk depends crucially on how they judge the person administering the lecture. Back in July 1979, it was hard to think kindly of Carter while sweating in a block-circling line hoping to buy at least a few gallons of record-priced gasoline before your tank went dry. But cycle back a few presidents to 1961 and you will hear another president issuing far sterner injunctions to near unanimous public applause.

John F. Kennedy warned Americans at the outset of his administration that the right question for you as a citizen is not what the country can do for you but instead what you can “do for your country.” Yet a review of press and public reaction at the time shows that this stern call for sacrifice was met with near universal praise, and the young president’s Gallup poll ratings climbed into the 80-percent range in ensuing months. (And even though, long before Reagan, he invoked the upbeat vision of America “as a city upon a hill,” Kennedy also had the temerity, in a March 1962 press conference, to observe that “life is unfair,” giving as an example the fact that that some men are wounded or killed in war while others get to serve out their time at a pleasant station in San Francisco.

Since Kennedy’s days, examples of the public expressing a willingness to tighten its belt can be hard to find. Still, when a popular President George W. Bush entered the Oval Office eight years ago, it became an article of faith that Americans wanted the (short-lived) budget surplus put right back in their pockets. Not so: When asked what should be done with the surplus in February 2001, a plurality (37 percent) supported shoring up Social Security and Medicare, one-quarter (23 percent) favored using the surplus to increase spending on domestic programs such as health, education and the environment, and 17 percent chose debt reduction. Only 19 percent said the surplus should be spent on a tax cut.

More recently, roughly two-thirds of Americans expressed support for the federal government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes. There has been consistent support for the trade-off of paying more for more coverage since the question was first asked by the Pew Research Center in 2003.

And while the cheerier notes sounded in Obama’s speech to Congress may have boosted both the public’s spirits and confidence in his program, don’t forget that—warnings from the punditocracy notwithstanding—a majority of the public (63 percent in the CBS poll cited above, and by a 51 percent-34 percent margin in a recent Pew Research Center poll) already supported his stimulus program. Pew Research also finds large majorities viewing the president as a good communicator (92 percent) and strong leader (77 percent), while his job approval rating, at 64 percent, beats the initial marks for both George W. Bush (53 percent) and Bill Clinton (56 percent).

So what do Americans want from a leader if not happy talk?

As it turns out, they want honesty. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last summer, fully 96 percent of the public say that the requirement that a political leader be honest is either “absolutely essential” (52 percent) or “very important” (44 percent), making it the most sought-after trait in a political leader. In fact, those in Obama’s opposition party are somewhat more likely to say honesty is absolutely essential (59 percent of Republicans) than are those in his own party (50 percent of Democrats) or independents (52 percent).

Of course views of what constitutes the truth, and hence what counts as truth telling, tend to differ somewhat across party lines. Still, it is noteworthy that the Pew Research poll found that Obama is currently seen as “trustworthy” by 76 percent of Americans, including by a majority of Republicans. By comparison, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each received trustworthiness ratings in the low 60s when they took office. So whether, in future speeches, Obama opts to put the accent on the positive or on the negative, he would do well to emphasize the facts, at least as far as they are knowable.