A Magic Pony Is the Wrong Horse to Back Trump, like Obama before him, appealed primarily to emotion. That’s a troubling political trend.

Fox News’ year-end poll is interesting. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they would vote today to re-elect President Trump, with 30% saying they definitely would. Thirty-nine percent say they expect him to be re-elected; 52% do not. At the same time, the president has a 46% job-approval rating, while 52% disapprove.

So the president’s approval numbers have been more or less steady, but not all those who approve of him are ready to vote for him again.

Possible reasons why are suggested deeper in the poll. The proportion who think the economy will be better a year from now has fallen 11 points since two years ago, to 45%—the most pessimistic outlook in Fox’s poll since January 2001. Fifty-one percent say the economy is either fair or poor; 47% see it as excellent or good.

Equally interesting, respondents approve of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation by 56% to 37%—a 19-point margin. Forty-eight percent say they believe the Trump campaign coordinated with the government of Russia in 2016, while 37% see no coordination. Four in 10 expect Mueller will find evidence of crimes, while just over half of those polled do not think they will be impeachable offenses.

Beto O'Rourke

Beto O’Rourke

In a way the president’s position is solid—his support is not melting down after the midterms and his party’s loss of the House—and in a way not solid at all. He’s not expanding his base. Voters who approve of his leadership give themselves plenty of wiggle room in terms of support, showing skepticism about the economy and open-mindedness on the Mueller probe.

The poll suggests that if the president fires Mr. Mueller, he will pay a hellacious price in public opinion, with even his core experiencing some bleed.

The poll left me thinking of what a high-ranking Republican who himself was once considered a possible president said last week in conversation in Washington. He knows the president and the White House, and he certainly knows politics. He speculated aloud on a hunch he’s had that Mr. Trump might not run for re-election. Think of it, he said. Unrelenting bad news is likely coming—final findings from Mr. Mueller, a new and hungry Democratic House, more investigations, little bipartisanship, economic uncertainty. It’s not going to be fun; the outlook for re-election will dim.

So, the politician said, imagine this: The president wakes up one morning and announces that, actually and amazingly, he’s accomplished everything he set out to do when he ran in 2016—cut taxes, appointed judges, faced off with China, made better trade deals, controlled immigration, improved the outlook for financial markets. “I accomplished in four years what other guys couldn’t do in eight!” the president says: “My work is done!”

And he’s gone. The politician thought this just might happen.

Since we’ve already begun to look toward 2020, a thought on what we’ve been doing the past few cycles.

Here is my concern: Politics is part theater, part showbiz, it’s always been emotional, but we’ve gotten too emotional, both parties. It’s too much about feelings and how moved you are. The balance is off. We have been electing magic ponies in our presidential contests, and we have done this while slighting qualities like experience, hard and concrete political accomplishment, even personal maturity. Barack Obama, whatever else he was, was a magic pony. Donald Trump too. Beto O’Rourke, who is so electrifying Democrats, also appears to be a magic pony.

Messrs. Obama and Trump represented a mood. They didn’t ask for or elicit rigorous judgment, they excited voters. Mr. Trump’s election was driven by a feeling of indignation and pushback: You elites treat me like a nobody in my own country, I’m about to show you who’s boss. His supporters didn’t consider it disqualifying that he’d never held office. They saw it as proof he wasn’t in the club and could turn things around. His ignorance was taken as authenticity. In this he was like Sarah Palin, another magic pony.

After two wars and an economic crisis, Mr. Obama gleamed with hope and differentness. This shining 47-year-old intellectual—surely he’ll turn things around. He’d been an obscure and indifferent state legislator who was only two years in the U.S. Senate when the move to make him president began. It was all—a feeling. He was The One. Mr. O’Rourke, who’s shooting up in the polls as a possible Democratic contender, is sunny, friendly, even-keeled. He reminds some Democrats of Bobby Kennedy—soulful, able to see and summon the things you like best in yourself. He even looks like a son of Bobby Kennedy. He is 46, has served only six years in the House, and before that was on the City Council of El Paso, Texas.

Our public political culture has given in too much to emotionalism. Last week at the George H.W. Bush funeral, which functioned as a two-hour portal into the old America, something was unsatisfying. Bush’s political life spanned 30 years. He had a way of seeing the world, thoughts and assumptions about it, a point of view, and these things had an impact on history. But most everyone speaking, and most in the pews, spoke not of the meaning of these things but of his personal qualities. That has its place, but we are talking history here, and the thoughts that produce it. The same was true at John McCain’s funeral.

We are highlighting emotions in our public life at the expense of meaning. And again, emotions are part of life and part of us, but only part, not the whole.

An exultant Chris Christie, cruising to re-election as governor of New Jersey in 2013, told me in an interview what writers don’t understand about modern politics. He said, “They misunderstand what people want from someone in political life right now.” Voters “want someone who’s going to solve their problems. And who’s gonna be practical. . . . And who has a philosophy that they can live with.” Pundits are always trying to check off issues on a list, “and I don’t think that’s what politics is. Politics is a feeling. It’s a visceral reaction to someone. Especially when you’re voting for an executive.”

I didn’t say so at the time, but I personally disapproved: Politics isn’t only a feeling, it’s about thought and judgment, it’s about matters of the head and the heart. But I remember after I quoted him the number of smart people who did not see it differently, who said that guy is pretty smart.

But sober judgment, serious accomplishment, deep knowledge and personal maturity are most important in our political leaders, because of the complexity of the problems we face. History will be confounded that at such a crucial time, trying to come up with a plan to address such issues as artificial intelligence and robotics and the future of work and a rising China and the stresses of the nuclear world, we kept choosing magic ponies and hoping for the best.