Michael Barone
"Why do you think President Obama's job rating is falling, even though the economy is recovering?" the interviewer asked.

It's a fair question, even though the economy declined 2.9 percent in the first quarter, even though most jobs created in June were part-time, and even though labor force participation remains low.

The fact is that the economy is growing, however slowly; jobs are being created, and the unemployment rate is heading down toward what economists consider full employment. And still the president's job rating languishes.

What's wrong with the question is an assumption embedded within it, that what voters seek most from government and political officeholders is economic growth. I think there's something they value even more: the maintenance of order.

This isn't what I was taught in political science classes. Political scientists who had grown up in the 1930s' Depression taught that politics was about "who gets what, when and how."

Operating on that assumption, political scientists developed rules that explained past election outcomes as a function of economic variables -- how much the economy grew in the second quarter of the election year, for example.

Those rules generally worked pretty well at predicting future elections -- until they didn't.

What they don't explain very well are the political upheavals that come when voters perceive that the nation and the world are in disarray. Americans, blessed with a mostly happy history, tend to take fundamental order for granted. They recoil and rebel when things spin out of control.

Example: The political scientists taught that the big shift toward Democrats in 1874 was a response to the financial panic of 1873. Sort of like the Great Depression.

But further study convinces me it was a rebellion against Ulysses Grant's military occupation of the South to protect blacks' rights. Voters tired of violence voted for the anti-black Democrats, who held House majorities for 14 of the next 20 years and won the popular vote for president in five of six presidential elections in those years.

Or consider Republicans' "back to normalcy" victory in 1920. This was a response to disorder at home (dizzying inflation and depression, waves of strikes, terrorist bombings) and abroad (Communist revolutions, continued fighting in Russia and the Middle East, rejection of Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations).

Closer to our times, Jimmy Carter was rejected in 1980 as the nation faced not only stagflation (inflation-plus-recession) at home and but also an "arc of instability" abroad.


Michael Barone

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2011 THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM