The AIG bailout bonuses were "Obama’s Katrina Moment" — that’s what Frank Rich argued in his New York Times column on Sunday. Just three days later that seems like a ridiculous claim.
The original "Katrina Moment" came when the public turned against George W. Bush, definitely and permanently, after seeing his massive incompetence in handling the aftermath of the hurricane in August 2005. Bush’s approval ratings dropped below 40 percent, and never went back up.
Obama’s approval ratings in contrast actually have gone up since Rich made his pronouncement: in a new CBS poll released Tuesday, 64 percent of Americans say they favor the job that Obama is doing right now – two points more than CBS’s poll earlier this month. Even more significant, ratings for the president’s handling of the overall economy increased from 56 to 61 percent.
Asked specifically about Obama’s handling of the AIG bonuses, CBS reported that "For the first time since he became president, a significant number of Americans are expressing disapproval of Barack Obama’s actions. . . . 42 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the president’s handling of the AIG bonuses, while roughly the same percentage – 41 percent – approve."
So a lot of people don’t like what he did with the AIG bonuses, but they still approve of the rest of what he’s doing. The public, in this poll at least, is able to make some distinctions.
It’s not hard to see where Frank Rich went wrong with his argument. With Katrina, it was pretty obvious what needed to be done: provide the basics of life — water and food; get people out of the Superdome and into decent shelter. But with the financial crisis, people are not so sure what’s the right thing to do. They know paying millions to AIG execs is wrong, but they also seem to know that’s a small part of a big problem.
There are lots of good reasons to criticize Obama’s actions on the financial bailout, and lots of good reasons for populist rage over AIG. But the public seems willing to give him more time — to see what works, and what doesn’t.