Wednesday, 28 January 2015

What do 'the cuts' really mean?

It's easy to bandy words around about 'the cuts'. Everyone thinks they know what they mean. A bit of belt-tightening here; a snip here; a cut there. Job done, right?

Well, no. Not at all. Less than half of our cuts are complete, if we keep on down this road (above). Which, given that the Conservatives have now caught up with Labour's numbers, and are now ahead in the majority of the most recent opinion polls, we probably will.

It might be important at this stage to zero in on the reality of what that means. It's all very well suggesting, as Prime Minister David Cameron tends to do, that 'we've all had to make sacrifices' (notice the past tense), but the actual shape of those 'sacrifices' is yet really to come into focus. We can put a figure on the likely cuts to public spending outside protected departments (overseas aid, health and schools) - about 26% across the Parliament, since you ask - but the enormity of the implications doesn't sink in from just that bold number.

Well, here's a bit more reality. It's £60bn, and perhaps a million public sector jobs. That's the first dose of your austerity icebucket challenge for you. Bracing, isn't it? Though what that means in terms of policy is still a bit opaque, and no politician in an election campaign will tell you.

We can turn here to a sector that we know well - Higher Education. Let's investigate the implications here of a 26% cut between 2015 and 2020, that comes on top of a lot of salami-slicing (and one big student fees reform) in the last Parliament. The vast majority of the budget spent by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) goes into universities - just under £8bn out of about £13bn. So we need to lose just over a quarter of that £8bn - £2bn, over five years. That's doable - just, probably. Just. But the menu might make you feel a bit sick. It might mean, for a few tasters:

  • Abolishing the Arts and Humanities and Economic and Social Research Councils;
  • Very large cuts to the Quality Related research income (currently about £1.6bn) that is distributed on the basis of results from the Research Excellence Framework - perhaps only funding 4* (out of four stars) work, or restricting the money to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths alone;
  • Ending European and international space research collaborations;
  • Abolishing the coalition's relatively generous grants scheme, and restricting all student assistance to loans;
  • Bringing back the cap on student numbers.

So, basically, one of the most successful parts of the UK economy - its science and research base, and its non-EU teaching income - would become a punchbag for the sake of a couple of billion quid. Well, forgive us if we don't cheer. And before you say 'well, we'll get the money elsewhere', you have to say where: fewer policemen? Fewer elderly care visits? Fewer buses and trams? To govern is to choose, as they say.

Things might be even worse for universities if there is a Labour government, because it is persistently rumoured that an Ed Miliband government will seek to lower the fees cap, currently set at £9,000, to £6,000. That's another £2.5bn down the drain, which a Labour government would have to make up from taxes. Vice Chancellors don't think much of that promise (£) - predictably - though they might hope for far fewer research and science cuts from a Labour government, so this might be all swings and roundabouts.

And bear in mind that these spending departments may have to take even deeper cuts than we've outlined here. There is basically no way on this planet that the Chancellor is going to cut £12bn out of the welfare budget (as he keeps saying, including in an embarrassing Newsnight interview with Evan Davis) without enormous pain for working families. Most of our benefits spending is on pensioners, and the Prime Minister has just signalled very clearly that he is not going to do anything to harm the interests of the section of society most likely actually to vote. The greatest share of the rest is made up of working age tax credits to price people into work - a key part of the Government's plans to 'make work pay'. Disability benefits reform is already in disarray, and the likelihood is that if a slimmed-down and streamlined version of Universal Credit is ever going to get off the ground, that's going to need more cash too, not less.

There is enormous room for doubt whether any of this will actually happen. It appears to be a kind of fantasy economics, and as we've noted here many, many times, it comes at a historical moment when we would expect state spending to rise, on an ageing population and on infrastructure at a time of lower interest rates, not fall.

But if such madness was actually to transpire? Non-protected departments - police, non-frontline defence and procurement, transport, the courts, local authority social services, universities, research, Further Education - will cease to be 'public services' in the way that we've recognised since 1945.

They will get absolutely eviscerated, hammered, gutted, marmalised, smashed and shredded. You can choose the word that suits you, really.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Decision time in Athens, Berlin and Brussels

Greeks' election of a radical anti-austerity government, led by the leftist party Syriza (above), was in many ways inevitable. It's the clear-cut outcome of a ridiculous economic policy, which seemed designed only to drive more and more Greeks into poverty, and which has inflicted the worst recession in modern history on a small state that the rest of Europe could have just bailed out directly with some small change.

What was the point of it all? We wonder, we really do. Does the German government really intend for other Europeans to be driven into penury, just to appease anti-bailout voters? Who will buy all those German machine tools, cars and dishwashers? Regular readers will know that Public Policy and the Past has long believed (and, er, wrongly predicted) that Greece should and will leave the Euro, at least temporarily. There seems no other way to get the country's house in order. Does anyone really think that the economic nuclear winter of the last few years was a propitious time for truly structural reform, either of politics or Greece's ailing private sector? Surely not.

Far better to devalue, default and deflate - to start again from a fair and clear position of national bankruptcy, like Argentina and Brazil before their twenty-first century growth spurts.

But Syriza's likely appointment of the Krugmanesque (and well-connected) Yanis Varoufakis as Finance Minister, and its new alliance with the right-wing anti-austerity party Independent Greeks, signals a wish to take a rather easier, and rather less apocalyptic line: to renegotiate Greece's debts on the basis that Greece now has the whip hand. If it threatens to bring down the whole monetary structure, it can: German and French banks (whose reckless lending, not Greek labour productivity, lie at the heart of the crisis) are just as exposed as the Greek people. So the Greeks' new government really does have a strong hand to try and insist on a 'soft default': to get most of their debts written off, and to mount a less aggressive budgetary consolidation. Maybe public sector workers will be paid properly. Maybe modern medicines will flow again. Perhaps something resembling normal life can return. You never know. Why not shoot the moon, eh?

Given these signals, the rest of Europe has a choice - and in some ways an invidious one. Athens has signalled its intention to do a deal, albeit only on rather more generous terms than have been available before. This represents a not-inconsiderable risk for Syriza, which if it goes down this path will inevitably see much of its support on the far Left fall away. Will Berlin and Brussels reciprocate?

In many ways, they would be crazy not to. A head-on confrontation would risk putting the future of the Euro itself on the bargaining table - not to mention the democratic legitimacy of the European Union, founded to foster freedom (and higher living standards) but with a record that's poor indeed in Greece in recent years. Sometimes, over the last few years, Greece has looked more like a failed state than a thriving, wealthy European democracy - a state of affairs for which its less-than-transparent governing oligarchies, and other EU states, must take their fair share of blame.

But go too far the other way and German and EU decision-makers will know that they might fan the flames of populist resistance. The Spanish and Irish economies are both growing, for instance, and in the latter case, pretty strongly: the election of populist anti-austerians such as Podemos and Sinn Fein to government in those states would be deeply unwelcome in Berlin, for it would show that Angela Merkel's entire diplomatic and financial strategy had failed.

The likely upshot? There'll probably be a deal, on fairly but not extraordinarily generous terms. The feelers are already out, and the informal discussions well underway. The markets seem to sense this. The revolt of the European peoples, voting for various nationalist, populist, anti-austerity, anti-immigration and anti-everything parties, will rumble on, pitching and rolling the mad, bad and dangerous drive to shrink the state, but never quite overturning it.

The people of Greece have spoken. But it remains to be seen what the new cry means.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

UK voting reform threatens the franchise

Not the least of the intriguing sub-plots in this year's UK General Election is the fact that many people won't be able to vote. It's difficult to count how many, though it might be a million or more, concentrated disproportionately among the young, the vulnerable and the poor: and the reason for this latest debacle is called Individual Electoral Registration.

It was brought in by the coalition to fight back against fraud, for the previous way that Britain has registered voters has been by household - a technique liable to manipulation, both by powerful local electoral networks or, potentially, by whoever's the most powerful and vocal member of that household. Postal voting, in particular, was thought to be a problem.

But the remedy has a very worrying downside: many younger, more indigent and poorer voters aren't going to be registered, and they perhaps don't realise it yet. Students, for instance, used to be signed up by their university, hall of residence by hall of residence. Now they're going to have to do it themselves, or perhaps trek home (or get a postal vote from) their parental address. If they have one. The Electoral Reform Society's dry run (and you can find their report here) found just over nine million voters at some risk of being erased once the lists are changed. Local councils have discretion over what to do about these people. Write to them? Try to data match and roll them over? It's up to them. Now things went as well as could be expected on that front. Last autumn, 5.5m people were 'missing' from automatic matchups between old lists and Department of Work and Pensions records. Now that figure's more like 3.6m, but with more than two million having signed up themselves, nine out of ten have successfully been transferred - mainly because their circumstances haven't changed. That leaves the remainder of the adult population who now have to sign up. They're doing so, but there's probably over a million out there who haven't applied. Time is now very short for them to make their voices heard.

Putting to one side the siren voices of charlatans such as Russell Brand, with their superficially appealing rejectionism and fashionable calls not to vote, young people have had a raw deal out of this government. They've lost Educational Maintenance Allowances. They've had a great big tax called student fees (amounting to an 11% tax hike) slapped on them. They've endured high and rising youth unemployment, even as more normal economic circumstances began to reassert themselves. All while older, and mostly richer, Britons have pensioner bonds, free television licenses, higher and earnings-linked pensions, free bus passes and free prescriptions handed out. Do you ever wonder why that happens? It's because they vote, they vote in large numbers, and the party that they more often than not support is in office.

So the most urgent thing to say is this: if you've moved home in the last couple of years, or if you're a student, go online and make sure that you're signed up to vote. You probably are, and there are transitional procedures in place that mean that most on the 2014 rolls will at least be able to cast a ballot in the forthcoming General Election. But there's still a risk that you've been bumped off the rolls. Right now. It's easy, it's quick and it's important to register. It doesn't really matter how you vote, but it does matter that you make your choice heard. Because if you haven't a made a choice yourself, how can you criticise those that our leaders make?

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Another ludicrous policy - from the usual stable

The recent, tragic attacks in Paris - and the heightened security situation that has inevitably followed - has of course thrown up the question of whether the police and the security services have enough powers to deal with the threat posed by extermist violence.

An open and shut case, you might think. It's understandable for the public to be worried; for law enforcement agencies to try to do everything they possibly can to stop such atrocities; and for governments to listen to both.

Except for our old friend: unintended consequences.

Now some of the proposals announced recently, in particular by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, are eminently sensible. More resources for the security services. Joint cyber warfare trials, or 'wargames', with the Americans.

And there's plenty more that everyone can have an opinion about, but that's still in the realm of contestable, arguable, testable data and good sense. And that was already floating about in the public policy arena, either in Bills presently before Parliament or in draft proposals by Ministers. Should IP matching be brought in, to make sure that the police can see who's using an any one device at a particular time and place? Should the police and the security services be able to see the 'headers' of your email traffic, basic details about the websites you've looked at, and who you've phoned, for the last twelve months - excluding the actual content of those communications, which would have to await a warrant? Well, we'd argue probably not, and we have good authority: the Deputy Prime Minister himself has just declared such measures to be 'un-British' (whatever that means). But it's at least worth having the debate.

What is not debatable the desirability and practicality of another item on the Prime Minister's wish list: banning encryption, the process by which messages are unbreakably encoded by the senders.

It can't happen, so it won't happen. Forcing big social media companies to keep information sounds big. It isn't, because it's impossible. Apple now makes its iMessage content unreadable and unsaveable by anyone except the sender, so good luck with getting the suits from California to hand stuff over - since they don't have it themselves, they reside in an entirely different legal jurisdiction, and they can't be touched by UK law.

There might be a tiny bit of efficacy here, if a crackdown on established social media sites pushes some violent extremists out of those easy-to-use and easy-to-access spaces, and into the open. But the much more likely outcome? All that open source encryption software out there will just mutate more quickly, more punishingly, and in ever more complex ways, allowing even more anonymous communications. It's the same set of paradoxes that undermines the case for 'we must keep everything' in the first place: in fact, the first line of defence against terrorism is properly integrated human intelligence, done well. A massive flood of data from almost every side might make things worse, because the haystack in which the needle sits would just get bigger and bigger. Even tech-savvy Conservative activists are hanging their heads in shame and muttering about becoming seen as 'the stupid party'.

Do we really think that everyone else, from absolutely every other country in the world, will really leave their encrypted devices at Passport Control? Can we make them hand them in? Do we want to open up a great big back door in all our communications, just ready for hackers and criminals (who understand this world much more clearly than do the authorities) to pour through? Do we want to endanger our world-beating industrial lead in software design, secure banking and academic security research? It's just really pitiful, ill-thought-out mush. In the bin it goes.

Anyway, it's all part of a bigger picture. What is so worrying about this simple dunder-headedness is that it is part of a pattern. Of a Prime Minister who inhabits a fantasy land of 'I want this to happen, so it must'. Of a civil service that has been so denuded of wise old heads, and is overworked and demoralised, that they can't even tell the wood from the trees any more.

Over the last year or two 'Public Policy and the Past' has dissected a whole raft of government policies that are never going to happen, that should never have been talked about, or that should never have been launched. Remember those checks that landlords were going to make on nationality? Remember Universal Credit (no further explanation required)? Remember the 'scientific' basis for the badger cull? Remember the laughable attacks on the European Court of Human Rights, and the massive tax cuts that will supposedly follow a Conservative victory in the upcoming General Election?

Shredded. Every single one. Just like this ridiculous, absurd and embarrassing proposal - just the latest doomed to sink without trace.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

We need to talk about stress and anxiety

Are you stressed? Well, yes, you probably are. The little green blinking light of your smartphone as it sits on your bedside table tells you that you have email in the middle of the night; your Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and Amazon accounts are probably all crowding your head; your ever-rising aspirations to build a new kitchen and new bathroom are probably pushing you to plan the schematics even as you try (and fail) to keep up with the demands on your screen-based, online, heavily digitised time. It's a plague - and it's getting worse, with a new thinktank report estimating the losses to the economy at over £100bn a year.

The most tragic element is that large numbers of young people - one in ten, in one recent estimate - are just too anxious to go out at all. Many of them are used to being ferried around by their parents in people carriers, of course, from one 'playdate' or party to another, from a very early age. Time outside has become more limited and less natural as the years have gone by, for all sorts of reasons. But they're hand-wringingly pained, self-conscious, worried and stressed as well, and that should trigger a different order of concern.

Now we can do all this in what you might call a micropersonal format. We can take up jogging and the gym (good), yoga (possibly better), football, music - you name it. And we can avail ourselves of the latest 'mindfulness' craze for modern meditation, downloading and paying for Headspace or some other online variant of 'breathe and feel' downtime engines. There's science behind them, don't you know.

All that will make you feel a bit, and possibly a lot, better - though just chilling out and kicking back with your friends will help you, too.

But there's more here. The tidal wave of anxiety that faces us needs collective public policy decisions as well as the balm of individual's calming efforts. We know this, of course, because the UK Government has been introducing 'family friendly' policies under both Labour and the Coalition that do go some way towards helping - we're about to launch out onto a new shared maternity and paternity pay scheme that will give families more time, and more flexibility, when they've got a baby at home. So far, so good. The present administration's much-mocked 'quality of life' index (along with all the others available) does help to some extent as well (or it would, if Ministers listened to what it was really telling them).

But where to begin with more changes? A school system that didn't reintroduce selection by the back door, and split siblings up across schools and cities, would do for a start - and help prevent parents becoming more and more frazzled as they shuttle their children through a many-miles-long round trip every morning. But major changes to the way we work should be placed front and centre, as Michael Orton, of Warwick University and the thinktank Compass, has recently been arguing. A more holistic, supportive and democratic social security system, that both supported people into work and gave them some sort of say over both their treatment and others', would be another progressive step. To be honest, anything would be better than Universal Credit and the Work Capability Assessment, but inclusiveness and tolerance would be a better guide to policy than the present hate-my-neighbour beastliness. More decent, fairer pay at the bottom of the income scale, and more job security? Thank you very much, that'd do nicely too.

The bottom line? We need to talk about stress a lot more, and then we need to do something about it. And we need to hurry up.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Inching towards a call on the UK General Election

Here at Public Policy and the Past, we long ago concluded that a Labour overall majority at the next UK General Election was just not going to happen. Labour's leadership was unpopular (it's even more unpopular now). The party was (and is) still blamed for causing the Great Recession - wrongly in our view, but there you go. Its local government and by-election performances just don't suggest a party storming towards power. Its opinion poll ratings have been gradually deflating for just about two years now.

Now that the General Election's just three and a half months away, time's arrow is finally approaching its target. And we can be a bit more firm again: the Conservatives now have a rather better chance of forming the next government than Labour does.

The writing on the wall is pretty large if you want to see it. The Conservatives have a massive brand problem. They are perceived to be the party of the rich - of 'the few', in New Labour parlance. They are just not seen as being on the side of 'average' voters. They have trashed just about every element of the modernisation that drew many voters to them in 2010. Environmentalism has turned to 'green crap'; David Cameron's three-letter priority of 'the NHS', and promise of no more reorganisations, has degenerated into a messy reorganisation that one can apparently see 'from space' and a winter A&E beds crisis that is partly caused by government cuts to social care provision.

But that doesn't mean that they can't win when Labour is no more popular. Now for a long time we thought that Labour might just make it over the line anyway. Left-leaning Liberal Democrats had defected in their droves to Ed Miliband's similarly left-of-centre outfit. A group that might amount to (say) six or seven per cent of the electorate would give Labour 35 or 36 per cent - enough to be the biggest party pretty much whatever the Conservatives did. Except that calculation doesn't look quite so smart now. Labour is clearly flagging just in the last mile, and the 'swingback' towards the Government - voters' return to the governing party's banner in the weeks and months running up to polling day - is pretty much on the same tracks as it has traversed, on average, in every electoral round since the 1960s. We see it in every informed report about on-the-ground developments and the parties' views of likely individual gains and losses. We see it in Lord Ashcroft's polls of marginal seats, which have seen margins get tighter during the last year. Now, it's true that the Ashcroft data has been moving down the list of Labour's Conservative target seats, and these might be less 'swingy' than ultra-marginals. But it's even more likely that Labour's challenge is very slowly waning. Voters are peeling off towards the Greens, towards 'don't know', towards 'won't vote': enough, perhaps, to depress Labour's score just enough to see Mr Cameron (above) back into Downing Street.

And then there is, of course, Scotland. All Labour would usually need from the Conservatives is twenty five seats or so - plus the ten they're likely to win from the Liberal Democrats - to reach 293 seats. If they've taken 25 seats from the Conservatives, that'll put that latter party down on 280 already. Then the Conservatives would need 14 gains from the Liberal Democrats - not as likely as it sounds - to remain the largest party and have the first crack at forming a government. But Labour's Scottish retreat since the referendum throws all those maths in the bin. If Labour really does lose about 20 seats to the Scottish National Party - and all the data we have suggests that this is more than likely right now - then Mr Cameron can relax. The regional 'skew' that meant Labour could still take power with fewer votes than the Conservatives is thereby 'righted', because their efficient 'spread' of voters exactly where they need them to win seats is watered down. They could still win a third of the vote in Scotland - only eight per cent down on 2010 - and still lose 20-30 seats given the scale of the SNP surge. Such is life. And making up for that with 20 more gains in England looks just about possible for Mr Miliband's party right now, with Labour perhaps one point ahead on average at the UK level, but by early May it would seem less likely.

So we are inching towards what the Americans would term a 'call': that Mr Cameron is likely to be able to continue as Prime Minister after May, because the Conservatives are more likely than not to have the greatest single bloc of MPs in the House of Commons. We're not quite there yet. It's not yet set in stone. We're at about a 55/45 likelihood. But the numbers are moving towards the Government, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to see a path to victory for the Labour Party. If they can really make their ground game work in the marginals, and if they can somehow cling on in Scotland, if ex-Conservative supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party stick with their present inclination, they can still make it. But it's a big ask, and it needs a lot of moving parts to go in just one direction.

We get the impression that this is not a particularly welcome conclusion, even sometimes to Conservatives themselves. Who wants a resumption of the regime that's given us the pathetic and embarrassing disaster area that is Universal Credit, the cruelty, incompetence and downright nastiness of the Work Capability Assessment, the student fees debacle, the chaos that's overtaking the probation and courts systems, the ridiculous threats to the European Convention on Human Rights, the great macro-economic U-turn that pushed most of the budgetary pain into the next Parliament, or the fantasy economics of austerity-plus tax cuts that will never actually occur?

Only about a third of the public say they want that. But right now, and given Labour's leadership as well as its problems in Scotland, it looks like that'll be just about enough.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Will UK spending cuts really return us to the 1930s?

Labour leader Ed Miliband's (above) recent claim that the Conservatives want to return the UK to '1930s levels of spending' bears a closer look - especially if you're an economic historian.

The phrase is obviously designed to strike fear into voters' hearts, summoning up visions of the Poor Law, the means test, of starving children and out-of-work labourers scrabbling on spoil tips for lumps of coal. And there's a little bit of truth in the claim - if you know how to count, and you know where to look.

First things first: spending will not be returning to 1930s levels. It's just not true. Government consumption during most of the 1930s (until rearmament began to skew the figures) might serve as a rough approximation of 'government service spending'. And it ran at about 10% of GDP then, as compared to the 15% that it's projected to hit by 2020. Chancellor George Osborne's plans would shove Britain back to spending about 35% of GDP by that time - a massive fall, to be sure, from the present 41% - but the same figure was approximately 30% even at the peak of pre-war spending in 1939. And about half that was spent on debt repayments from the First World War, meaning that 16% was left for public services. By contrast, the Conservatives suggest that this figure might be 20% in 2020.

So it's towards the 1930s, but not into the 1930s. So will we be all right, even with such swingeing cuts? Well, no, actually. Things are going to feel very, very grim indeed. The bulk of the cuts are still to come if the coalition (or anything resembling it) returns to power. Now if you're reading this in Scotland or Northern Ireland, you'll be relatively sheltered, because of the Barnett Formula protecting the elements of Scottish spending that will still not be raised in that country after the Smith Commission's recommendations are put into effect. And the recent financial deal in Northern Ireland means that public spending there will still be much more generous there than in England and Wales. But if you're outside the Six Counties and you're south of Berwick and Carlise, we're very much afraid that you're in the soup.

The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies says that the spending reductions of 2015-20 will be 'colossal' - by far the greatest attempted since the early 1920s, and possibly the largest in modern history if they are actually carried out. Non-ringfenced departments will lose half their budgets. It's as simple as that. The Conservatives won't even rule out cuts to the schools budget, which has been protected up to now. At a time when a massive birth bulge is hitting the schools, you should prepare for massive, massive class sizes if you've got a young child. Now any alternative Labour-led administration will go a bit easier, releasing perhaps £25bn more for public spending by the end of the Parliament - because they don't want to create an actual surplus, and they're not promising any absurd and unfunded tax cuts. But things won't be easy, even if Ed Balls is in the Treasury. He's already been forced to announce that he won't ease up on public sector pay, and there'll be cuts aplenty whoever's in No. 11 Downing Street.

There's a structural reason this'll all feel so grim, and you can see it today in the burgeoning crisis engulfing Britain's A&E departments. It's because our ageing society is about to age a lot more steeply, meaning that social care at home is becoming a lot more important at a time when it is taking the brunt of spending reductions. And when the provision of residential care might die out, too, on these figures. What will all these elderly folk do, when they fall sick, and when their relatives can't look after them? Hit the hospitals.

So the answer to the question is: no, we won't be returning to the 1930s' absolute or proportional levels of spending on public services. But things will feel bad. If you work in, or have to use, any of the services threatened - the police, the fire services, public housing, universities, research, local transport, the courts, social work and family support, local authority elderly care - you might just find that large chunks of them quite simply no longer exist. And that the NHS and schools, although to some extent protected, feel like they are operating at the very edge of their capacity. If you're in your 40s and 50s, the best advice is this: start saving now, and save as much as you can, because you're going to need it. It is a dark and doleful prospect - but one not really helped or illuminated by misleading references to the 1930s.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

President Obama's successful presidency

So. President Obama (above), then. Elected in a frenzied wave of optimism about 'hope' and 'change'. Re-elected in a trench-warfare battle with a rival he successfully defined as elitist and out-of-touch. Surely he's history, right? Down in the dumps, his party shattered in the recent mid-term elections, he should be just about ready for the lame duck antechamber out of power when the next Presidential election really gets going later this year.

Well, no. Not so, actually. His ratings have been creeping up and up, and there are now some polls that give him ratings comparable with Ronald Reagan's at this stage in his presidency.

And the reason? Well, in the short-term, the economy seems to be going somewhere at last. Lower petrol prices, in particular, are making Americans - for the first time in many years - feel as if many of them can take part in and profit from what growth there is. It's not glad, confident morning - wages have sagged for too long to make the respite feel like anything more than just the beginnings of a hopeful start - but most citizens think that it'll do for now.

But there's more to it than that. Freed from the last set of elections he'll ever contest, whether on the ballot or in voters' minds, he's now free to be himself. In an age when authenticity matters more than policies - when voters are crying out to hear someone who just sounds like them, and sounds like they're not reading from a pre-prepared and jargonised crib sheet framed by either the left or the right, that matters. It matters a lot when it's combined with bold policy initiatives that seem even more important than those launched when President Obama's party controlled the legislature. Changing the immigration regulations to allow many of America's recordless residents to stay (for now, at least). Standing up to North Korea - and for free speech. Forging a cautious peace with Cuba. Appealing for calm and moderation on the many racial and social problems that confront the United States.

Put that together with his longer-term record, and it's no wonder that he's never going to be anything like the demonic, polarising figure that right-wing commentators want to paint him as. Health care reform - for all its problems - and a stimulus programme that lasted for longer than most of Europe's will get taught in history classes across the world as cautious but important steps that made America (and the world) a better place. Do you see a Republican leadership desperate to repeal Obamacare? Well, no - right now, they're trying to piece something together that can hold on to some of its gains if the Supreme Court strikes down some of its federal subsidies. Do you think that a new Great Depression would have been averted without swift action in in 2008 and 2009, at the end of the George W. Bush administration and (much more markedly) under President Obama? No again.

A historian looking at his numbers (we know, that's our job) simply has to conclude this: his lowest approval rating, at his worst possible low, was still higher than George W. Bush's, Bill Clinton's, the elder Bush's, Reagan's, Carter's, Ford's, Nixon's (unsurprisingly) and Johnson's. Only Kennedy, Eisenhower and FDR outperform him. You know what? Anyone mortal would take that, any day of the month.

President Obama's popularity is never going to soar again - certainly never to the unrealistic heights of yesteryear. But he's restored the economy to something that looks more like normal service, while refusing to slash and burn social services. He's personified calm and at least the aspiration that we should make public policy in a more rational, more objective way. And the man himself is more comfortable in his own skin than he's been able to be for many years. He's more confident and assured that, just by being himself, he can reach out to his fellow citizens, speaking both to and for them in a way that befits a man who's still going to be President for bang on two more years.

If only we could have more governing in this vein, and less campaigning.