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May 14, 2014 9:19 AM Millennials Losing Faith in President, Not Presidency

By Jonathan Bernstein

Ezra Klein is excited today because, he says, “Millennials are losing faith in the presidency.” That’s based on a poll of young people by Harvard University, which found that trust in the presidency is off since 2010.

I have the greatest respect for Ezra, and I wish he was correct about declining belief in a magical presidency, but we should ignore that poll.

When I look at his graph, I see loss of trust not just in the presidency, but across the board — in the federal government, Congress, even the military. It shows that 18- to 29-year-olds are more negative in general than were members of that demographic group in 2010.

But does this mean they’re less likely to believe that the presidency has magic powers that can fix all problems as long as the right person is in the job?

Probably not. But beyond that we have no idea. People have been asked about trust in government, and in various institutions, for decades, and it’s still not clear how to interpret the answers. However, it’s safe to assume that young people haven’t suddenly figured out that the presidency doesn’t work the way that a major strain of the political culture (mistakenly) believes it does.

More likely, these young people have lost faith in President Barack Obama, not the presidency itself — and they’re probably discouraged about the economy. Those sentiments add up to less enthusiastic answers when they are asked questions they have no reason to think about, such as whether to trust the presidency, or Congress, or other institutions.

The good news here is that the rise of the political science blogosphere (U.S. politics subdivision), and the rise of political science-friendly reporters and bloggers (Ezra is among the people on that list), means that there’s a fighting chance for change. But it’s not going to be a quick process. Magical ideas about the presidency are a perfectly sensible, if entirely wrong, reaction to the complexities of the Madisonian system. Anyone who has worked on a losing campaign knows that believing in magic is almost a necessary condition for electioneering. After all, who is going to work phone banks and go door for door for a candidate who really can’t change the world?

And even a demystified president can change the world in some ways, over time. Especially if that president benefits from a political context that allows for occasional cooperation among important players within the system. People should care who is president, and they should get involved in campaigns (especially at the nomination stage). Presidential power is severely limited, yes, but the president still has more influence than anyone else.

Always be careful of polls that try to get at attitudes that might not exist before a poll respondent has to think about the answer to a question. And don’t expect belief in the magical presidency to disappear, even if faith in a particular president starts to ebb.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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