Both political parties have seemingly bought into the idea that a strong leader ignores polling data. Altering a policy to align it with national opinion is unanimously thought to demonstrate a lack of resolve.
In April, The American Crossroads Political Action Committee, run by Republican strategist Karl Rove, released an ad labeling Obama “a celebrity president.” The short video clip implied that Obama’s popularity is detrimental to his ability to govern.
In his convention speech, Obama responded to such attacks by saying, “If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them.”
But is this how we want our leaders to behave? Whether or not politicians should heed polls taps into an age-old debate in political science. Some say that politicians should base their decisions on the will of their constituents while others say that they should rely exclusively on their own judgment.
I am not trying to settle this debate or say the conventional wisdom is necessarily wrong. However, I believe that the other side of the argument should be presented.
Both presidential campaigns have included populist messages that contradict their “strong leader” rhetoric.
Romney’s campaign website condemns “Obamacare” for being unpopular, claiming that the “American people recognize that [it’s] the wrong approach.” So according to the website, Americans are wrong for liking Obama, but right for disliking his health plan.
Obama told supporters in Charlotte, NC that his 2008 victory and the policies he enacted were not about him, but rather about his constituents. “My fellow citizens,” Obama proclaimed, “you were the change.” This is from the same man who made the aforementioned joked about ignoring public opinion just minutes later. Obama’s belief that his policies are successful because he disregarded popular concerns is at odds with the idea that the voting public can claim credit for those self same statutes.
From these odd juxtapositions, it is clear that neither campaign truly advocates for brushing aside the will of the people. The inconsistency reveals the absurdity of a politician ignoring opinion polls. If campaigns actually wanted to sell their candidate as someone who makes the hard, unpopular decisions, they would drop the populist rhetoric.
While it is clear that America’s four-year presidential terms and lack of national referendums are signs of an intentional, institutionalized attempt to insulate the executive branch from the whims of the masses, public opinion should still be taken into account in governmental decision-making. Responsive politicians are an essential ingredient in our political system.
If our choice in November is between two candidates who plan on ignoring the will of the people, do we still live in a democracy?