Remember when Massachusetts loved Charlie Baker?
Not long ago at all — but also, a pandemic ago — people in this state thought they had landed on the ideal governor: a strong steward of the machinery of state government, not progressive certainly, but moderate enough, a steady hand on the wheel. His approval ratings were the stuff of politicians’ dreams.
Now, not so much.
A newly released poll conducted by WCVB-TV and UMass-Amherst showed a precipitous decline in the governor’s popularity. The percentage of people who approved of his performance has dropped from 78 percent in August to 52 percent now. Baker’s popularity dropped across all demographic groups, the pollsters say, with a 38 percent approval rating among his fellow Republicans.
Maybe none of this is as shocking as it might seem at first glance.
At the risk of sounding crass, the first months of the pandemic were good for elected officials. They were unusually visible, hosting press briefings everyone watched because we were all stuck at home with nothing better to do. Mayors and governors got to be voices of reassurance at a time of intense anxiety. And after a while, for a while, the infection and death numbers went down, and they were the ones credited with guiding us all through.
Except that we weren’t through.
Baker’s glow began to fade when the second surge began to drive the numbers up. An early sign of what was in store for him came with the constant confusion over how to handle school openings, an issue that left almost no one happy.
The arrival of a vaccine was supposed to make everything better. Baker has made the point that Massachusetts and other states did not get adequate supplies of the vaccine. Getting access to the doses became a nightmare, while issues of equity were never adequately addressed.
The irony here, of course, is that Baker’s success was all built on the notion that he was a great manager. So something like managing a vaccine rollout should have just shown what he can do, right?
Maybe it has.
Predictably, Team Baker immediately responded to the poll by shrugging it off.
“The Commonwealth is a nation-leading state in getting COVID-19 vaccines to residents, and Governor Baker remains focused on executing this massive program, reopening our economy safely and getting kids back into schools,” spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw said in a statement.
It’s reasonable to argue that Baker’s approval ratings of last summer weren’t sustainable. But I don’t think this is just a blip for Baker. The management woes exposed by the last stage of the pandemic go right to the heart of what is supposed to be his armor, his skill at running the government.
It’s exposed an administration that doesn’t listen to enough voices, or plan and coordinate as well as widely assumed, and whose self-assurance makes it lousy at correcting course when things clearly aren’t working.
The political dynamics have changed too, with the new administration in Washington. Where former President Donald Trump largely left governors to figure things out on their own, the new administration is doing much more to shape the agenda. From reopening schools to picking up the pace on vaccinations, governors like Baker are being pushed in a way they weren’t before.
Meanwhile, a major decision looms for Baker on whether he wants to seek a third term in 2022. With the pandemic complicating his political fortunes for the foreseeable future and Attorney General Maura Healey itching for her chance at the corner office, deciding to run again is a harder decision than it would have been a few months ago.
The good news is, the pandemic will eventually wind down. Summer is coming, vaccinations are rising, and some form of normal life will eventually return. Baker’s popularity won’t continue to slip.
But his magic carpet ride really is probably over. A great truism of government is that anyone can manage in good times; hard times and the hard decisions that they bring, are the real test.
Baker has not failed that test; far from it. But a lot of voters have fallen out of love with him, and they won’t be easy to woo back.