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Good and Bad Arguments About Obama and the Economy

[ 174 ] September 9, 2011 |

One the one hand, although I understand his point I can’t go along Mike Konczal’s quasi-defense of Drew Westen. Ignoring Westen’s theory of politics is very much an “apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln” proposition — his ignorance of American political history is so comprehensive, his vision of how politics works so replete with howlers, I can’t proceed. Consider some of this gems from his latest piece:

Obama’s apologists never address why Democrats require 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation, but Republicans require only 51 — 50 in the case of the disastrous tax cuts that bankrupted our Treasury in the first place, without which we would never have had a trumped-up budget crisis.

Look, there are people whose opinions about American politics I care about. There are people who don’t understand why it requires 51 votes to pass a tax bill but may require 60 votes to pass card check. And there’s certainly no overlap in these categories. Or this:

Perhaps most problematic for the “Senate made me do it” defense is that George W. Bush pushed through virtually every piece of legislation he proposed without ever having more than 52 senators on his side of the aisle. Like most modern presidents, Bush simply appealed over the heads of members of Congress if they wouldn’t move.

The problem here is that this is all completely false. Much of Bush’s agenda failed to pass, and nothing he did pass required “going over the heads” of members of Congress who strongly opposed what he was doing. The tax cut and national security bills had strong ex ante support and no powerful opposition. NCLB and Medicare Part D were bipartisan compromises of the kind Westen would be furious about if Obama supported their equivalents, and in the latter, less bipartisan case involved not public appeals but buying off powerful constituencies. The cases where he tried to do what Westen assures us Obama could do if he just wanted to — Social Security, immigration — he conspicuously failed.   The assertion about Bush never having more than 52 Republican senators is also false, and given the relative homogeneity of the parties and the effects of the malapportionment of the Senate I’d rather have 55 Republicans than 59 Democrats.   And moving beyond clear factual errors, his bare assertions that rhetoric was central to the policy successes of FDR and Reagan haven’t gained any plausibility or empirical support in this iteration.

But where Konczal is correct is that all the Green Lantern nonsense isn’t necessary to critique Obama’s economic performance, and here I recommend ignoring Westen and just reading Konczal. There’s good reason to believe that the administration didn’t understand the magnitude of the crisis and didn’t respond adequately. Whether or not they could have gotten any kind of second stimulus out of Congress, they had no reason not to try. They made no effort to be creative with the appropriated HAMP money even after the program was a clear failure. And something Konczal doesn’t mention: he appointed an (admittedly non-wingnutty) Republican Daddy as head of the Federal Reserve and allowed other spots to remain vacant.

Facing political mortality, Obama made a pretty good speech with some pretty decent policy proposals that seems to have at least some recognition of the magnitude of the disaster. Facing possible (political) death does concentrate the mind. But, alas, there’s nothing Obama can do to get the House to support most of this — more needed to be done when the Democrats had a stronger political hand.

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Comments (174)

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  1. snarkout says:

    That’s about the size of it. (I wonder how much of the focus on why the president isn’t engaging in more magical thinking over the HAMP and Federal Reserve and stimulus size failures is a result of the still lingering raw feelings over the ACA? Seems like a lot, to me — if you want to view failure to get a public option, much less Medicare-for-all, as the signal failure of Obama’s first and possibly only term, you have to view presidential power and the bully pulpit as more important than I think they actually are.)

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    Was this a political lifesaver for President Obama?
    I don’t know. But not bad at all!
    I thought it was a very good speech, great tone, and just enough ‘in your face’ to the Republicans without being blatant about it.
    It wasn’t exactly a Liberal barbarian yawp, but neither was it the Austrian Austerity vintage whine that Conserevatives favor.
    And, ‘It’s all paid for!’ is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Keynesian economics, but at least he’s willing to spend – and it should make people realize who the fiscally reponsible party is, was, and has been.
    I would have liked for him to stress that, if deficits are really their concern, the best way to lower and then eliminate them, is through getting people back to work. And that’s what this bill is about.
    I’m more of a direct stimulus fan than of tax incentives/credits, but the $4,000 for people like me who’ve been out of work for 6+ months (16 for me), and the one for returning veterans, sounds pretty damn smart to me.

    Two things I heard that concerned me a lot were bringing up Medicare and Medicaid, and more hints about his ‘grand bargain.’ I want to hear more about those.

    Some optics:
    I loved the shots of Kyl and McConnell sitting next to one another. They didn’t look happy – which made me feel better. Throughtout the whole speech, every time the camera turned to them, it looked as if they’d just exchanged their turds and swallowed them.
    John Boehner looked like he was in the turd-exchange/swallowing deal with Kyl and the Yertle.
    And Eric Cantor looked like he’s had a very rough enema before the speech.

    It might be me, but I only noticed the Republicans getting up off their Citizens United stuffed wallets a couple of times:
    When Obama mentioned Medicare – in the hopes that maybe he’s going to be taking the sting out of their self-induced Ryan Suicide Pact – and God I hope Obama doesn’t. That would be stupid.
    And when he mentioned veterans. They’d better get on their feet for that! These SOB’s have done more to increase VFW membership, and real estate acreage at Arlington National Cemetary, than anyone since LBJ passed the Vietnam baton to Nixon, and he kept on going at a full sprint.

    Having said all of that – the Devil’s in the details.
    As I said, he was as feisty as I’ve seen him since he took office. I liked that it’s called “The American JOBS Act,” and not some wonky BS name, like Democrats always do.
    I might have liked if he’d called it the Total Employment Act (TEA), just to fuck with the Birchers and morons.

    And, unless I completely missed something – Me Likey!
    One of, if not his best, policy speeches as President (the Giffords one, excepted, since that was on a different topic).
    This probably makes me an Obamabot in a lot of people eyes. Well, so be it. I’m tired of the negativity, I wanted some hope for 2012, and I think he did a good job of laying out the differences in approaches between the two parties. He was fairly subtle about it, but I think he laid the groundwork for really getting in their faces if they dont “Pass this bill NOW!” He can go full Truman with “The Do Nothing Congress” accusations, or even go call them the “The Do Worse Republicans In Congress.”

    A friend called right after the speech to talk about it, because I had wanted to turn to FOX and watch them projectile vomit split-pea soup as their heads spun. My friend, not exactly a flaming Liberal, really like the speech.

    And if Republicans, who he’s painted into a corner on this one, don’t go along, Obama can take Reagans famous words, redo them, and shove them up their asses.
    “For the rest of us, the 9 most dangerous words are what the Republicans believe in:
    “I’m here IN the government and I won’t help!”

    That’s enough from my big fat mouth. I’m going to be curious what everyone else here thought about the speech.

    • soullite says:

      Obama did far more harm to progressivism than most people here will ever be willing to admit. People used to say that Republicans claimed that government was the enemy, and that when Republicans were in power, they were right. Obama has proven to most Americans that government is our enemy even when it’s in the hands of the Democrats.

      I think that Government could be a force for good, but at the same time, it’s pretty clear that it never actually will be.

    • Triplanetary says:

      You keep talking about the things Obama *can* do if the GOP doesn’t play ball, but I see no evidence that he *will* do them.

      His new jobs plan would be more impressive if it had come several years ago. You may be “tired of the negativity,” but I’m just tired of our current do-nothing government. The fact that it’s a do-nothing government is the GOP’s fault, not Obama’s, but that doesn’t mean I have to side with Obama. Just accept that this is a story with no protagonists.

      • John says:

        If it’s the GOP’s fault, then why would you want to “accept that this is a story with no protagonists?” Obama isn’t perfect, but the GOP is the problem, and Obama is the only conceivable alternative to them, at least in the short run. So I’m going to side with him.

  3. pine@gmail.com says:

    Did Bush have much of an agenda in his first term beyond endless wars and tax cuts?

    • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

      Yup, a three-point plan: Stem cells, stem cells, and stem cells.

    • The passage of Democratic bills like NCLB and Medicare Part D, with a Republican spin, before the Democrats could bash Republicans over the head with them and pass more liberal versions.

      Other than the tax cut, that was pretty much his first-term agenda before NineElevenChangedEverything.

      • Murc says:

        Please don’t call Medicare Part D a Democratic bill.

        Democrats PAY FOR their entitlement programs. We’re tax-and-spenders, and I for one am proud of that label. We deficit spend to counter economic downturns; our entitlements have dedicated funding mechanisms.

        • Not paying for it is the ‘Republican spin’ I was talking about.

          The Medicare prescription drug benefit was a Democratic cause for years, strongly opposed by the Republicans, until Bush caved.

          • margoharris says:

            It was a give-away to seniors to get votes going into 2004, it is how Bush won. They had to keep voting open to the wee hours of the morning and literallt locked them in the chambers to force them to vote for it. it was a big fat givaway to Big Pharma and buy votes of seniors in the run up to the 2004 election.
            Democrats were for a negoitated price for drugs, like the VA has, but big pharma an their bought and paid for hacks won.

  4. firefall says:

    Westen hasnt been the same since he got his burn notice

  5. soullite says:

    Obama’s entire administration is marked with systemic corruption. He never even tried to appear like he was on the side of the American people. All he ever did was stand in front of us and make apologies as to why he ‘had’ to side with the powerful, or the alternative (which will never see, or know, and as such will never actually believe) would have been far worse.

    That was never going to fly.

    • Says the person who admits to not giving a damn about anyone who’s not like you.

    • c u n d gulag says:

      soullite,
      SSDD!
      Do you realize that there’s more than one note out there?

      And that one-trick ponies get tiresome pretty damn fast?

      Here’s a hint: Even old dogs…
      Try it sometime, won’t you?

    • Anonymous says:

      Not only wouldn’t someone truly interested in 98% of the citizens but a real Democrat not hire people who enabled and created the economic meltdown like Tim, Larry, Sperling and their masters of the universe plus re-appoint Ben; then hire GE’s Emment as a(spitting up in my coffee) jobs czar.

      Gee, after governing like a Republican his first three years, losing the House as a result, he’s staring into the face of the ghost of his political mortality. No one deserves it more than this guy … he’s earned it.

      And now he’s going to agree with the Econ 101 illiterate Republicans and tell us tax cuts will create jobs and taking money out of the econmony (gettin’ austere y’all) will cause jobs to fall from the sky. Ask the Germans how forcing austerity on the their Eurozne customers is working out GDP wise (hint: last quarter German GDP = 0). Wait till our clowns deficit reductions hammer our GDP later this year.

      The key word is DEMAND (you know like WW II government expenditures).

      “Cut my taxes and I’ll hire you.” Is there a more monsterous lie? Well how ’bout, “If you lower my taxes tax revenues will increase.”

      These people are pathological and no we did not get to where we are as the result of mentally healthy, rational people making decisions.

  6. As far as the speech goes, Obama did a pretty good job selling it, and whoever crafted it has a very good sense of theater. There were at least half a dozen lines designed specifically to make Republicans look foolish for sitting down over. And dear Lord, could Boehner have looked any more disinterested?

    The question is going to be whether or not he keeps hammering the message relentlessly. Because as we all know, the House won’t pass anything like this. That means Obama has to keep hammering the House and House Republicans specifically. Talk might be cheap, but that’s all Democrats have right now, and Obama needs to talk about jobs and Congressional action Every. Single. Day. And he needs to explicitly put the blame for a lack of action on the House. Who knows, that might even work at shifting the public’s ire over the economy onto House Republicans, but only if Obama relentlessly hammers the message that it’s the House Republicans who won’t do anything.

    • NBG says:

      The problem is the president is set to announce a new deficit reduction plan in ten days. The administration should be hitting on jobs for at least the next month not stepping on its own message.

    • Killigrew says:

      Brien Jackson said, “Obama needs to talk about jobs and Congressional action Every. Single. Day.”

      Looks like someone drank the Green Lantern Kool-aid!

      Didn’t you get the memo? The bully pulpit has ZERO effect on public opinion.

      • mark f says:

        Awesome, a new person who refuses to understand.

      • Murc says:

        It doesn’t?

        I’m curious why you think this, it’s not a political theory I’ve seen expounded anywhere with any credibility. In fact I would say its just the opposite, that the bully pulpit can have a noticeable effect on shifting public opinion, especially over very long time horizons.

        What’s your rationale here?

        • Anonymous says:

          Look if this guy wanted to act like a president he would have told those Dems opposing him he would primary them, campaign for their primary challenger and deny them DNC money/support. Not that hard, yet he campaigned for Blue Dogs. Make up your own caption.

          • Well let’s see:

            Bayh and Lieberman chose not to seek re-election.

            Nelson is up for re-election this cycle, and wasn’t standing in 2010.

            Mary Landrieu doesn’t have to be re-elected until 2014, after Obama’s first term ends.

            What else you got?

      • Except I didn’t say that would magically gets his proposal passed, nor did I say that would create a massive change in public opinion. Hell, I didn’t even say it would do anything, just that it “might” work.

      • The bully pulpit has ZERO effect on public opinion.

        This is how I know the criticism of Scott’s point is bullshit: nobody criticizing it can even accurately sum it up.

        Once again, for the slow kids in the back of the class who spent the semester eating paste: the bully pulpit can have a large effect on public opinion, but it has ZERO effect on institutional Washington, including Congress.

  7. Malaclypse says:

    That’s so cute: RC and soullite share values.

  8. AcademicLurker says:

    I didn’t bother tuning in for the speech because what’s the point? None of it is going to get through congress now.

    I’m honestly puzzled as to who was Obama’s target audience for this speech. The people who follow politics closely enough to tune in for it know that nothing will actually happen.

  9. TT says:

    My view is that the most persuasive liberal critiques of President Obama focus on 1) his overreliance on process and norms in the face of a radicalized opposition that respects and observes neither, and 2) as a direct consequence of 1, a failure to utilize the tools at his disposal in the form of HAMP, unused TARP funds, Fed appointments, and so on. There is also the issue of his comfort with advisers who are much too tight with the financial services industry, which might very well contribute to his reluctance to utilize said tools. And then there’s his infuriating ineptitude as a negotiator.

    But some liberals, like a (very) good many conservatives, continually fall prey to the single-most vacuous phrase in American politics: “presidential leadership”. If only the President had gone rhetorically medieval from day one, then all–or at least most–would be right with the world. I don’t buy that. (Good communications help, certainly, but my sense is that they work only at the margins.) Would I like him to get a little feistier now and then, and–for God’s sake–be a more skillful negotiator? Of course I would, and last night was a promising start. But demanding that he snap his fingers, show some emotion, and make a lot speeches ignores the fact that his opposition has–and had, however cynically– both the Constitutional means to thwart his agenda and no incentive whatsoever to refrain from seeking his destruction. However, I guess there’s just no convincing some people of this fact.

    • Murc says:

      My view is that the most persuasive liberal critiques of President Obama focus on 1) his overreliance on process and norms in the face of a radicalized opposition that respects and observes neither, and

      Uh. You regard that as a persuasive critique?

      Reliance and respect for process is not a flaw, it is a plus. I love that we have a President who relies on process! Process has another name; ‘the rule of law.’ We just got done with eight years of a Presidency that didn’t give a fuck about process, and I for one remain glad to see it in the rearview.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        I guess I would find this more persuasive if I saw the Obama administration caring about “rule of law” in a more coherent and consistent manner. It seems to care about “rule of law” only if the other players in their game are powerful enough to require it or if maybe somehow “following procedure” will insulate it from Republican criticism (it won’t, not ever, scorpion, frog), but not if the powerful would suffer.

        See, e.g., banksters, civil liberties, assassination teams, whistleblower prosecutions.

        • Holden Pattern says:

          Also, too, war crimes.

        • Murc says:

          I guess I would find this more persuasive if I saw the Obama administration caring about “rule of law” in a more coherent and consistent manner.

          Well, I can’t really argue with that, especially since in my opinion the most persuasive liberal critique with the Obama administration isn’t its devotion to process, but its SHOCKINGLY bad record on civil liberties. Which are, you know, the foundation of all liberal thought.

      • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

        I think “process” as used by TT is denoting something other than “respect for legally binding process norms” — which, as noted by H. Pattern, are rather selectively honored by this president. (See also Libya. We don’t need no steenkeen War Power Act ratification!) I think “process” is being used to describe thing like pretending that there is any reasonable basis for negotiating with lunatics, a reluctance to use entirely lawful and appropriate tools in the face of obstruction (e.g., recess appointments, budget reconciliation), and creating Byzantine nightmares like the Super Committee.

        • TT says:

          Sorry for not explaining myself more clearly, but this is exactly what I mean by “process”. And it is confined to the narrow issue of economic and healthcare policymaking, legislating, appointments, etc. To me, more basic rule of law matters such as civil liberties and war powers are a separate issue, and I am in complete agreement with those who believe that Obama’s record on both is a travesty.

        • Triplanetary says:

          Yeah, exactly. It’s not that I want Obama to go all “fuck democracy” on us, but he’s continuing to rely on channels that are blocked by Republicans. Given his inability to get Congress to do anything he wants, he needs to do as much good as he can with the tools that are under the control of the executive branch.

          I fully understand that without Congress’ cooperation, the executive’s power is limited, but I also think it’s fair to argue that Obama hasn’t been using those powers anywhere near their limits.

      • dangermouse says:

        Process has another name; ‘the rule of law.’

        Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

        People should really stop and think before they say things like this.

        • dangermouse says:

          So how ARE those investigations into the Bush Administration’s crimes coming along?

          • Clearer dangermouse: If the administration doesn’t prosecute crimes of its predecessors, it is utterly irrelevant that they’ve stopped committing them.

            I love people who are so passionately opposed to torture that they don’t care whether or not the government is torturing people. Because of their devotion to their principles!

            • margoharris says:

              No administration in American history has gone after a president after he leaves office. Never happened before but you want the first black president to do it. The cognitive dissonance is stunning.

        • Murc says:

          I’ll admit I could have thought that through a lot better, especially since I become foamingly mad whenever I think of the Obama Administrations horrendours civil liberties record and the fact that both he and Eric Holder have betrayed both their oaths of office and violated numerous laws and treaties by failing to go after the known war criminals in our midst.

          So that’s my bad. I should, in fact, have thought that comment through better. Mea culpa.

          To expand on that in a clearer fashion… I like it when the Obama Administration shows a commitment to process. Procedural legitimacy is one of my big bugaboos when it comes to actions undertaken by ANY arm of the government. I like it when they don’t issue executive orders in areas where the law is clear and Congress has aggressively asserted its primacy. I like it when they attempt to get laws passed rather than considering what they can do to skirt them. I think that’s the way a legitimate executive branch SHOULD function.

          I do have some beefs when they refuse to exercise aggressive decision-making in areas where congress has clearly delegated them the power to do so and such actions would be both helpful and legitimate. Delaying the new EPA regs is a great example of that. But on the whole, I like it when they concentrate on process. I think its a GOOD thing.

          • Holden Pattern says:

            I guess what I’d say is that when someone shows a commitment to process in one area and a commitment to acting expediently / picking winners and losers independent of process in another, and in both cases, the outcomes have a particular political valence, you kinda have to assume that those are the desired outcomes and it’s part of a coherent whole.

      • david mizner says:

        The most persuasive liberal critique of the President is that he hasn’t governed as a liberal. Keep it simple and true.

  10. Sebastian Dangerfield says:

    Scott,
    I think you’re being more than a little unfair to Westen with this:

    Look, there are people whose opinions about American politics I care about. There are people who don’t understand why it requires 51 votes to pass a tax bill but may require 60 votes to pass card check.

    Westen used the appropriate example of using the reconciliation process to legislate tax policy, and singled out that Bush tax policy as the most destructive blow to the public fisc. I find no suggestion that budget reconciliation could have been used for the Employee Free Choice Act or anything else that could not be shoehorned into a reconciliation bill. Indeed, I think it fair to take Westen as suggesting that he should have used reconciliation to undo those tax cuts without letting them expire and thereby swallowing the poison pill of a middle-class tax hike in the bargain.

    And let us not forget that there is a metric shit-ton of legislation that could be shoehorned into reconciliation. That’s how we got the ability of terminated employees to pay to stay on their company plans for a spell (that would the “BR” in what everyone knows as COBRA benefits). We know that the administration lackeys who tut-tutted that they could not use reconciliation for the Health Care Bill were of course talking through their hats because when the already flawed bill got too hopelessly up-fucked by Congress for even the administration to stomach, it was “fixed” through reconciliation.

    Bottom line: You are correct that reconciliation could not be used to enact EFCA, but wrong to suggest that Westen was arguing anything of the kind. And I think you are impliedly downplaying the extremely useful and malleable tool that is the reconciliation process.

    Look, I know that being on the prowl to damp down overly exuberant attitudes toward presidential rhetoric. That’s a good shtick, and is in many cases a needed corrective, but you often get a mite carried away with this particular obsession. But presidential rhetoric can matter, particularly with one who is as gifted at it as Obama. (indeed, the rap during the primaries was that that was his only gift, a rap that looks less unfair now than it did at the time.)

    • mark f says:

      That seems overly generous to Westen to me. That whole portion of the column is almost entirely non sequiturs. For example:

      the “he had 60 votes in the Senate only for a few months” defense. As this story goes, the president had the entire House and a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate for only a few months. No matter that he started with approval ratings topping 80% or that he had between 58 and 60 Democrats until he lost Ted Kennedy’s seat to Scott Brown in 2010

      I don’t know what approval ratings have to do with the partisan composition of the senate. Also too, “between 58 and 60″ does not always equal 60. Also three, Obama didn’t lose any Massachusetts senate races. Also four, Brown’s win didn’t actually drop the Democratic caucus below Westen’s arbitrarily valuable 58. This is little more than random sputtering.

      • mark f says:

        Also five, the partisan composition of the House has no bearing on that of the Senate, and anyway the House did pass a lot of legislation that died later; does Obama get credit for that, or just blame when it fails in the other body?

    • david mizner says:

      It’s telling how the presidency-has-little-power people quickly move past the Bush tax cuts, as in ‘except for his tax cuts, Bush got almost nothing passed.’ Which is like saying, ‘aside from hitting the iceberg, the Titanic had no problems.’ Those tax cuts reshaped the role of the federal government as well as political debate. Eleven years later there they still are. Bush went for 1.6 trillion, regarded as extreme even by the MSM, then suffered a “political blow” when Congress passed only 1.2 trillion. Had Obama decided to do something similar — shot for 2 trillion, settled for 1.5 0 – he might have put a real dent in unemployment (especially in conjunction with a progressive instead of bank friendly approach to foreclosures) and restored the very idea of liberal governance instead of discrediting it. Which is to say, the direction of a country can be — and often is — changed with a single piece of legislation.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        It’s telling how the presidency-has-little-power people quickly move past the Bush tax cuts, as in ‘except for his tax cuts, Bush got almost nothing passed.’

        Because the arguments about presidential power deal with arguments that presidents can compel members of Congress to pass stuff they otherwise oppose. The Bush tax cuts are enormously important, and were an important example of the president’s agenda-setting power, but they don’t tell us much of anything about the president’s power vis a vis Congress because Republicans and conservative Democrats like upper-class tax cuts.

        Nobody says that the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 didn’t have a huge impact (although Ralph Nader’s supporters seemed all too unaware of this at the time.) But they tell us exactly nothing about whether Obama could have forced Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh to support single-payer if he had just really wanted to. That’s the issue.

        • david mizner says:

          But that’s because you misrepresent the opposing view. No one’s saying that Obama could magically turn conservative Dems. We’re saying that in 2 or 3 key instances (stimulus, Wall Street reform, and health care) he possibly could have gotten better bills by trying for better bills. (There’s no way of knowing for sure.)

          In terms of actual effect on the economy and therefore his reelection, the only bill that really matters in the stimulus. (The housing mess does too, but that was almost solely in his control.)

          If Obama were as bold as Bush had been at the outset of his term — if like Bush he’d been willing to risk and accept a short-term political “loss” — the country and political landscape would quite likely look very different now. And liberalism as a brand would be in much better shape.

          But I see why you skip over the Obama stimulus as quickly as you pass over the Bush tax cuts. These defining bills destroy your argument.

          • Well, no, you just refuse to stop being pedantic and deal in reality. To wit:

            1. The only way to “get a better (more progressive) bill” would be to get Ben Nelson to vote for it. So however you want to frame it, your practical argument is that Ben Nelson could have been made, persuaded, whatever, to vote for a more liberal bill.

            2. Stimulus aside, you just keep eliding the point that the tax cuts passed in no small part simply because they enjoyed sufficient support in Congress.

            • david mizner says:

              Yes, absolutely, in the case of the stimulus, I’m saying that there’s a good possibility that Ben Nelson would have voted for a 1.3 trillion dollar stimulus if he’d been made to feel that — and could tell his constituents that he’d decreased it by 3 or 4 billion. As Krugman screamed from the rooftops at the time, centrists don’t have principles, they merely want to be able to say that they made bills less liberal.

              But then we don’t know, do we. Because. He. Didn’t. Try. Which is where I always begin and end up.

              I don’t believe he could have been made to support a public option because that’s a single measure whose meaning and “liberalness” doesn’t shift depending on the baseline — ie what’s offered.

              But then we don’t know for sure. Because. He. Didn’t. Try.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            I don’t skip over the Bush tax cuts. I have argued repeatedly that they’re not comparable to health care, and you don’t actually have a counterargument.

            Again, you seem to think that it’s a serious indictment of Obama that Bayh, Nelson et al. couldn’t be persuaded to sign off on a much better health care bill. I’m amazed that Reid and Obama were able to get them to vote for anything. What leverage does Obama have over them exactly? Do you seriously think that getting conservative median Senators to vote for upper-class tax cuts is similar to getting them to vote for a health care bill?

            And also, failing to pass the ACA wouldn’t have just been a short-term political defeat. It would have been a long-term defeat for the prospect of getting any kiind of health care reform passed.

            • david mizner says:

              I never said the tax cuts are comparable to health care. I said the tax cuts are comparable to the stimulus. While straight tax cuts are an easier sell than the stimulus package, which was a combo of spending and tax cuts, there was in each case support for an expensive bill and the power of a new presidency behind it. And in each case, the largeness depended on the relative boldness and ideological inclination of the president. I wish Obama was as liberal and bold as Bush was conservative and bold.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                But the two are, in fact, quite comparable. Both asked for big figures, and both were trimmed by moderate conservatives in the Senate.

                Now, I do agree that Obama may have left money on the table in the stimulus negotiations, and probably should have mad e a higher opening bid. But I don’t agree that Obama could have gone with any opening bid, even more than a trillion, without risk of blowing the whole process up. Bush was bolder, and I’m inclined to agree that Obama should have been more aggressive, but Bush also had more inherent support and less to lose.

                • dangermouse says:

                  But I don’t agree that Obama could have gone with any opening bid, even more than a trillion, without risk of blowing the whole process up.

                  Based on ?

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  Based on ?

                  Well, based on exactly as much as assumptions that if Obama asked for $10 trillion Evan Bayh would have happily voted for $8 trillion. Except that the fact that subsequent events have proven that the median senators are perfectly happy to have no stimulus, and I’d also note that cases where a lot of money was left on the table don’t involve passing bills by one-vote margins.

                • dangermouse says:

                  Well, based on exactly as much as assumptions that if Obama asked for $10 trillion Evan Bayh would have happily voted for $8 trillion.

                  Thanks for admitting that your views are more comparable to cartoonishly outlandish opposing scenarios than they are to anything anyone’s actually saying?

                  I can’t imagine why you thought that was a good idea, but it certainly saved me some time.

                • Walt says:

                  If Obama asked for $3 trillion, and got nothing, then the stock market would have crashed. You’re not going to tell me that Congress ignores the stock market, are you?

                • dangermouse says:

                  So now that you’ve admitted that your view that “Asks for > 1.2 trillion – the amount his most qualified economic adviser told him was what was actually necessary = blows up all the whole process” is in no way comparable as an assumption to “Asks for > 1.2 trillion, gets somewhere closer to that amount”, uh… I guess my Friday weblog commenting schedule is all cleared up. Thanks Lemieux, you’re a real bro.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  “Asks for > 1.2 trillion – the amount his most qualified economic adviser told him was what was actually necessary = blows up all the whole process”

                  I have never said that this outcome was inevitable. I have said it was possible, as opposed to people who believe that there was no risk whatsoever.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  You’re not going to tell me that Congress ignores the stock market, are you?

                  Well, today’s 300-point drop gives us a good test case. I assume you expect Obama’s proposal to sail through Congress now>

                • This whole discussion of the Bush tax cuts vs. the stimulus bill ignores a rather important distinction: the Democrats were proposing a tax cut, too, in 2000/2001. They supported a tax cut roughly half the size of the one Bush was proposing. In 2009, the Republicans were not proposing a stimulus bill half the size Obama was proposing. They were opposed to any stimulus bill.

                  The different between what Obama got and what his opposition party wanted was a little under $800 billion.

                  The difference between what Bush got and what his opposition wanted was about $700 billion.

                • dangermouse, why are you pretending that nobody has argued that Bayh, Nelson, and Snowe would have lopped off a pre-determined percentage of whatever opening offer Obama proposed?

                  That argument is made numerous times whenever this issue is raised.

                • Walt says:

                  The lack of threading after a certain point is weird.

                  Now that the Republicans are in charge and are actively seeking to torpedo the economy for 2012, things are different. But in 2009, Bayh, Nelson, Snowe, and Collins are going to stand in the way of Obama after a big sell-off, and kill stimulus off altogether?

                  And then when the macroeconomic situation continues to worsen, and unemployment relentlessly climbing? They’re still going to stand in the way?

        • david mizner says:

          Further, I suppose I shouldn’t try to categorize the views of others: perhaps there are bloggers out there who are arguing that the President could force conservative Dems to support bills they otherwise oppose, but I haven’t seen them.

          What I’m saying is:

          1. He should have fought for better bills, cause like they say, you can’t succeed if you don’t try.

          2. the views of pols, especially ‘centrists’ aren’t set in stone but are often based on what the baseline is.

          3. Pols, especially the Pres, have the power to shape public opinion and therefore the political conditions in which bills are considered: case in point, the massive rise in public support for austerity measures during O’s term.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            As Brien says above, 1 and 2 contradict your first paragraph. Either conservative Democrats can be compelled to vote for liberal legislation or they can’t.

            • david mizner says:

              You seem to think a bill like a stimulus package has a set definition of liberal free of context. Those things get defined to large degree during the political process. If Ben Nelson knocks 2 hundred billion off President Obama’s 1.5 trillion dollar “extreme” bill, he’s crowing about his accomplishment.
              And beside the definitions “liberal” and “conservative” there’s the equally salient question of whether the president is seen to win or lose. If you go back and look at the first round of coverage of the tax cuts passage, you’ll seen the much of describe it as a political loss for President Bush because he got a lot less than he wanted. Then by the second round, people were saying, Oh. And here we are 11 years later.

              • Hogan says:

                You seem to think a bill like a stimulus package has a set definition of liberal free of context.

                If it’s Keynesian-motivated deficit spending, it actually does.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                If Ben Nelson knocks 2 hundred billion off President Obama’s 1.5 trillion dollar “extreme” bill, he’s crowing about his accomplishment.

                This is, in fact, not obvious. Why would we assume that he wouldn’t just crow over killing the “extreme trillion dollar stimulus”? Is there really no risk that Snowe and Collins, if the baseline got high enough, would see the primary footsteps and abandon the arbitrary trimming game entirely? I’m much less confident about this. As we’re about to find out with this jobs bill, even in dire economic circumstances Republicans are perfectly comfortable passing nothing.

                • mark f says:

                  Why would we assume that he wouldn’t just crow over killing the “extreme trillion dollar stimulus”?

                  To pre-emptively answer the follow up question, here’s what those senators would say about not passing any stimulus:

                  “If the president would put a reasonable plan on the table blah blah the White House’s fault for not being serious.”

                  Sensible centrist punditry: “Why won’t Obama be serious?!?!?!”

                  Tom Friedman: “A pensive cab driver told me Obama should get serious.”

                  Maureen Dowd: “You know, Obama’s unserious spending is kind of like Sex and the City.”

                  Eventheliberal Marty Peretz: “Obama’s too busy hating Jews to get serious.”

                  I don’t know how people who follow politics don’t see this happening to their fool-proof plans.

              • You seem to think a bill like a stimulus package has a set definition of liberal free of context.

                I think he believes that the political context you’re talking about is larger than the swings in public opinion that can be accomplished over the short term by presidential rhetoric.

                Defining political context strictly in terms of public opinion, without taking into account factors like partisan politics and interest group influence misses a great deal of what politics is about.

                Discussing the realm of public opinion as if it in infinitely malleable in the short term by presidential rhetoric is also a mistake.

                If Ben Nelson knocks 2 hundred billion off President Obama’s 1.5 trillion dollar “extreme” bill, he’s crowing about his accomplishment.
                And beside the definitions “liberal” and “conservative” there’s the equally salient question of whether the president is seen to win or lose.

                If you walk into a Honda dealership and offer $1000 for a new Accord, the dealer isn’t going to meet you half way. There is not a set amount – either in real dollars or as a percentage – that Ben Nelson would have wanted to knock off. Nor is it certain that he would have considered it to be in his interest for the President to have a win, as opposed to taking credit for dealing him a loss. His response to both questions would have been determined by the reception to Obama’s bill, and different-sized bills are likely to have gotten different receptions.

          • the massive rise in public support for austerity measures during O’s term.

            There has been no massive rise in public support for austerity measures during Obama’s term.

            I thoroughly refuted this point yesterday, after your tantrum.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I don’t understand this defense at all. He says that Republicans require 51 votes and Democrats require 60, using Bush tax cuts as an example…but of course nobody thinks you ever need 60 for tax cuts.

      On non-reconciliation issues, Republicans either got Democratic support or what Bush wanted didn’t pass. The whole argument makes absolutely no sense.

      • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

        Your “of course …” is doing an awful lot of work here. Westen is quite obviously not writing for political scientists. He is pretty clearly simplifying things to make a point — the one underlying the sentences you’ve highlighted being that Democrats simply failed to use reconciliation when they should have.

        Look, I have no particular brief for Westen, but Scott’s gone over the edge with his hair-trigger for anything that smells like an argument that perhaps if the President were to get out and actually try to sell a policy — particularly one that one can expect to be popular — it’s possible that it might be easier to get such policy enacted. (This puts paid to the ridiculous notion that because Bush failed to sell an unspeakable unpopular policy once (SS privatization), no president can have much of any effect on any policy.) Of course, this would require Obama to start embracing policies that have widespread support …

        • “simply failed to use reconciliation when they should have.”

          Alright, I’ll bite. When was this, exactly?

          • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

            Um, health care (and not just as a stop gap), Bush tax cuts, stimulus.

            • Reconciliation 1) can only be used once a year, and 2) needs to be deficit neutral.

              So, that rules out anything in 2010, and the Bush tax cuts.

              Health care?

              Stimulus?

              I suppose the Senate could have tacked on “…and then we’ll institute a massive tax hike in 9 years…” to these things, but good luck getting 51 votes for that.

              • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

                Sigh. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re talking about what might have been if a more effective legislative strategy had been pursued in 2009 and 2010.

                2020 was only off the table because Reid, the administration, etc., squandered their one shot at using reconciliation in 2010 in order to “fix” the PPACA. That’s after insisting ad nauseum that “we can’t use reconciliation for PPACA” all year. Now there’s considerable question whether the mandate portion of the PPACA could have been part of a reconciliation package, but we (or at least some of us) are talking about how a more progressive health care bill might have been managed.

                Getting rid of the Bush tax cuts would not have violated the so-called Byrd rule as it would have in fact substantially reduced the deficit. Here are the parameters of the Byrd Rule. Come back when you’ve done your reading.
                A bill is considered “extraneous” to the reconciliation process:
                *if it does not produce a change in outlays or revenues;
                *if it produces an outlay increase or revenue decrease when the instructed committee is not in compliance with its instructions;
                *if it is outside the jurisdiction of the committee that submitted the title or provision for inclusion in the reconciliation measure;
                *if it produces a change in outlays or revenues which is merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the provision;
                *if it would increase the deficit for a fiscal year beyond those covered by the reconciliation measure, though the provisions in question may receive an exception if they in total in a Title of the measure net to a reduction in the deficit; and
                *if it recommends changes in Social Security.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  Getting rid of the Bush tax cuts could have been done without reconciliation, of course, but the Democrats got things in exchange for a temporary extension. If they aren’t allowed to expire next time, then it was probably a bad deal.

                  On health care, any viable bill would have required a mandate, so it’s beside the point. Reconciliation doesn’t help you with single payer because there aren’t even 20 votes.

                • Reconciliation couldn’t be used for the heavy lifting on the ACA because it can only be used for strictly budgetary things, so the regulations and system reforms couldn’t be passed using reconciliation. I don’t know why this is so difficult to understand.

                • In case you haven’t noticed, we’re talking about what might have been if a more effective legislative strategy had been pursued in 2009 and 2010.

                  You can drop your little pretension. Every word I wrote was about 2009 and 2010. Perhaps you can go back and clear up your misunderstanding.

                  squandered their one shot at using reconciliation in 2010 in order to “fix” the PPACA.

                  Where “squandered” is defined as “made it possible to pass the top item on their legislative agenda.” Since you seem to have forgotten, they didn’t make those fixes to the Act because they felt like it, but because it was necessary to do so in order to get both houses to pass the bill so it could be signed.

                  That’s after insisting ad nauseum that “we can’t use reconciliation for PPACA” all year.

                  Which they couldn’t; they could only use it for those small fixes. What are you having trouble understanding here?

                  but we (or at least some of us) are talking about how a more progressive health care bill might have been managed.

                  And doing a very bad job of it, if you think that reconciliation could have been used to do so, for the reasons I’ve now explained to you twice.

                  Getting rid of the Bush tax cuts would not have violated the so-called Byrd rule as it would have in fact substantially reduced the deficit.

                  But it would have violated the rule I actually mentioned, which was the once-per-year limitation. Thank you ever so much for pointing out that it did not violate a rule that nobody claimed it would have violated.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          I’ll also bite — how will Obama coming out for a policy make it more likely that Senators in Louisiana and Nebraska and other states where Obama was never actually popular make it more likely that Senators representing those states will vote in favor of it? How does attempting to mobilize public opinion make any difference at all to Evan Bayh, who wasn’t running for anything and loves him some of that sweet, sweet corporate sinecure money? What’s the theory here?

          • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

            The unnamed Senators to whom you are referring showed themselves quite amenable to good ol’ fashioned porky bribes, which they both demanded even after they helped further suckify an already sucky bill. And meting out bribes — as well as using whatever levers of party discipline are available — are part of the tool-kit of effective leaders (see, e.g., Johnson, L. B.). Using such tools is not at all inconsistent with, at the same time, actually getting out and working to sell the policy to the voting constituents (as opposed to the paying customers). I am not saying — and, critically, I see no-one sane saying — that it is sufficient for the president to get out there and talk purty about a policy, which is the scarecrow that you continue to flail at. But it does not hurt. And it can help. There’s a distinction to be observed between “shaping” public opinion — which I think a president has a quite circumscribed ability to do, except in rare instances — and harnessing public opinion. Public opinion, for instance, was solidly behind a comprehensive health care reform that did not include an individual mandate (which is probably why Obama ran on such a plan). Mobilized voters swamping the call lines of even dickwads like Nelson can help (provided that, as a sage upthread observed, you shape things such that said dickwads can say that they helped make the bill less liberal/expensive/etc.). Standing back in the shadows and allowing the Death Panel Summer to happen certainly did not. If you don’t think that creating a concern that there may be some voter blowback from obstructing your party’s signature legislative priority does not matter at all — with the corollary that all that matters are transactions between elected officials — then you’r far more cynical about what’s left of the republic than I am, which is saying a lot. And as far as those negotiations are concerned, isn’t that the rationale for putting Rahm where he was, that his much-ballyhooed “cracking heads” abilities were to be pressed in the service of good policy.

            Now, to be sure, once the administration decided to buy off the insurance industry with the mandate, Obama’s potential effectiveness at either shaping or harnessing public opinion diminished rather severely, but that’s only because he chose a monumentally unpopular path, not because your ever shifting cast of Senate bad guys stand as immutable laws of nature. Christ I’m tired of hearing the “This is what happened, ergo this is the best that could have happened ” line of argument. that’s certainly the line coming out of the OEOB, but it ignores a very complicated, multivariate issue.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              For all this verbiage, you have failed to address my point entirely. What possible reason is there to believe that Obama would be capable of “harnessing public opinion” in states where he wasn’t popular? Associating himself strongly with the public option would, to the extent is mattered at all, would have made Nelson, Bayh, Landrieu et al even less likely to support it.

              • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

                Very difficult to address a point that keeps changing at the velocity of yours.

                • Scott has made the same point over and over:

                  Again, you seem to think that it’s a serious indictment of Obama that Bayh, Nelson et al. couldn’t be persuaded to sign off on a much better health care bill. I’m amazed that Reid and Obama were able to get them to vote for anything. What leverage does Obama have over them exactly?

                  I’ll also bite — how will Obama coming out for a policy make it more likely that Senators in Louisiana and Nebraska and other states where Obama was never actually popular make it more likely that Senators representing those states will vote in favor of it?

                  What possible reason is there to believe that Obama would be capable of “harnessing public opinion” in states where he wasn’t popular?

                • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

                  Um no. The “what leverage?” question is different and much broader than the “what could a president who is not popular in particular states do to mobilize public opinion?” point. That one was a late-breaking addition. Also kinda wrong.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  Very difficult to address a point that keeps changing at the velocity of yours.

                  My point has been perfectly consistent — Obama has very limited leverage over conservative red-state senators. Your responses to this point have involved lots of social-democracy-is-here-if-you-want-it hand-waving and no specifics.

                  That’s something you’ve never addressed. Putting buffoonish words in people’s mouths might make it easier to refute them, but it’s not a best practice.

                  Oh, for Chrissakes. I addressed this very explicitly in response. To repeat what I’ve already said, his argument betrays no understanding of basic Senate procedures; the fact that you can pass tax cuts with 51 votes doesn’t mean you can pass non-budget bills with 51 votes.

                • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

                  The problem is that he never said non-budget bills can be passed with 50+1. You chose to read it that way, and it was Weston’s bad for not writing very clearly, but that is hardly the only or even the most obvious way to read it.

                  Reading Weston in the light most likely to make him look like a bonehead is perhaps forgivable, but in shrugging off the points made above as “social-democracy-is-here-if-you-want-it hand-waving and no specifics” you definitely are guilty of willful misreading — and once again putting fatuous words in other peoples’ mouths. Again:
                  1. First you said “no leverage” and I pointed out moving public opinion, along with other tools cataloged above (e.g., bribes, to which Nelson and Landrieu have long records demonstrating susceptibility), can move senators. Again, no one is saying that presidential rhetoric alone is panacea.
                  2. Obama: not that “unpopular” in either Nebraska or Louisiana. As noted above, 50% favorables overall in each state at the beginning of 2010. He’d kill to have those numbers now. Care to explain how there’s no way in hell he could have moved democratic voters to put some pressure on Nelson and Landrieu? You just keep throwing around the word “unpopular.” If that’s an example of “specifics,” what do you call Gallup poll numbers?

                • The “what leverage?” question is different and much broader than the “what could a president who is not popular in particular states do to mobilize public opinion?” point.

                  …except when it comes directly after Scott’s statements about popularity and popular opinion. As the one I quoted did. When something is put in bold face, that doesn’t mean you should skip over the rest of the quote.

              • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

                And as long as we’re in “address my point!” mode, I will note that our exchange was touched off when I noted that your critique of Westen involved imputing to him a view that was nowhere stated in the article — muddled and errant as the article was. That’s something you’ve never addressed. Putting buffoonish words in people’s mouths might make it easier to refute them, but it’s not a best practice.

                To your new, improved point, I will attempt to spell it out: 1. there are a number of tools at a president’s disposal, one of which is mobilizing public opinion.
                2. Using the mobilizing-public-opinion tool can be used in conjunction with other tools, such as legislative favors to particular holdout senators, the latter of which may well be more effective than the former in the instances you cite. Thus, had the president decided to walk and chew gum, there’s a good chance he could have bought Nelson and Landrieu even if his ability to mobilize public opinion in Nebraska and Louisiana was limited.
                3. the new element you’ve tossed in — presidential unpopularity in Nebraska and Louisiana — does more than move the goalposts, it displays some pretty sloppy thinking. Surely Obama was not universally detested by the democratic electorate in those states. Unless you think that low popularity overall = absolutely no way that the president can muster any support in the state from democratic voters for a policy that might have been popular had he stuck with something resembling what he ran on — a silly position — I don’t know what you’re saying.
                4. You should probably stop baiting La Althouse so much. Her argument style’s beginning to rub off.

                • Most political analysts consider the point at which popular opinion can swing a hostile senator’s vote to be somewhat north of “not universally detested” and “any support.”

                • Sebastian Dangerfield says:

                  To Troll from Lowell: “[somewhat north” it was: Obama was at 50% overall in job approval in both Nebraska and Louisiana at the time. Voila.
                  His favorables among those who vote democratic were surely higher. Lots of room for mobilizing opinion there.

                • Your need to lead of with pointless insults only advertises how weak you know your argument to be.

                  People who are not losing arguments do not get so emotional. I think you would be better off if you cooled it.

                  Ah, I see you’ve changed your argument to something reasonable upon having its shortcomings pointed out. Good, that’s what I was aiming for.

                  His favorables among those who vote democratic were surely higher. Lots of room for mobilizing opinion there.

                  Public opinion was already mobilized among those who vote Democratic. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the larger body of people who were not reliable Democratic voters.

        • Triplanetary says:

          The current Congressional GOP is determined to stop Obama from accomplishing anything, with no regard for the welfare of America or Americans. So if Obama comes out in favor of something, the Congressional GOP is going to oppose it, *especially* if it’s something that would be popular. They won’t risk Obama getting credit for popular policies, so they’d just as soon not enact any.

  11. david mizner says:

    The speech was most notable for what didn’t say. It mentioned that there was an economic crisis but didn’t mention that banks had caused it. The very cause of the economic crisis (as well as the primary cause of our deficit) has completely disappeared from his narrative (if that’s not too generous a term.) Therein lies the main problem with O’s economic policy, a neoliberal deference to Wall Street, which also explains why he’s trying to deform entitlements (that part was mentioned.)

    • Nigel Roder says:

      Mizner is right that the key thing about Obama’s speech is what he didn’t say and what he has failed to get across since Day 1: how we got in the mess we’re in. That would be too divisive for a squish like Obama.

      It’s too late now — the bell has tolled. It’s a shame he blew it so badly fom the get go.

      And Sebstian Dangerfield is right that Scott Lemieux’s position is a little too pat and unfalsifiable. There is a large dose of whatever will be will be in Lemieux’s position. And anyone who says differently is just dismissed with a “I really don’t think he could have done x and you must be naive if you do think so” and that’s that.

      Que sera sera.

  12. actor212 says:

    Excuse me?

    Much of Bush’s agenda failed to pass, and nothing he did pass required “going over the heads” of members of Congress who strongly opposed what he was doing.

    Name three pieces of legislation from the first term that did not pass.

    Name five major pieces, apart from Soc Sec reform, that did not.

  13. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    It was a fine speech, less for its policies than its tone. At some point Obama’s got to come up with a way of contrasting his performance with the GOP’s in a way that both inpires the base and attracts swing voters. This would be easy to do if the economy is good in a year, but it almost certainly won’t be. This speech is the first time in a long time that I’ve seen any sign that this White House is willing and able to tell a story about this lousy economy–and how we might get out of it–that might move more people to vote for him.

    A small, but significant, sign of hope.

    • actor212 says:

      I took comfort in the fact that he basically put it up on his shoulder and dared them to knock it off.

      His speech was simple language designed to get across to the American people, not the Congress, that he was listening to their concerns. Defeat of the bill now becomes an albatross around the GOP collective neck.

      • virag says:

        odd that this tough speech designed to appeal to the common man, simple farmers, people of the land, the common clay of the new west comes now of all times. is it because the need is greater this week than it was last week? or could there be another reason?

        • Because moving public opinion is useful during election season – it can help win elections – and not terribly useful outside of election season – it does very little to help move legislation through Congress.

          Elections, not the phantom of public pressure on sitting senators not facing re-election in the near future, is pretty much the entirety how public opinion influences Congress.

  14. Michael Drew says:

    Konczal’s just making the leap everyone who wanted to defend westen in the forst go-round had to and did make, and he does it explicitly in the first lines:

    if we expand Westen’s definition to include ideas, beliefs, and assumptions about the economy, then there is a stronger case to be made against the administration.

    Gee, ya think? I had no time for a discussion of the Administration’s failures that is centered around a fallacious over-reading of what this psychologist has to say then, and I don’t have the time now.

    If you want to make an all-systems critique of Administration domestic policy, by all means do it! Just do it, though! What’s it got to do with Westen’s cracked thesis?

  15. virag says:

    is it really possible that the whitehouse didn’t understand the severity of the situation from day one? or was it that they simply didn’t listen and didn’t _want_ to understand because it didn’t fit with preconceived notions and policy positions? that sort of thinking explains the failure to stake out better positions on so many issues at the outset. as has been stated over and over again, his vague rhetoric during the campaign may have sounded sorta liberal and activist, but the concrete policy ideas and administration personnel were anything but.

  16. virag says:

    the scott lemieux/jonathan chait axis is a pretty sad state of affairs. westen’s nonsense seems like brilliant analysis in comparison. the lemieux/chait thesis boils down to: because obama failed to lead, presidents cannot and never have lead. well, thanks for coming in.

    • Yes, Scott, shame on you for inventing those wholly-novel, never-before-articulated ideas about the power of the presidency being limited in the sphere of domestic policy, and about presidential rhetoric not being a strong influence on public opinion over the course of a legislative session, and about public opinion not exerting a strong influence over sitting officeholders not facing imminent re-election campaigns.

      You clear dreamed these up in mid-2011 to defend Barack Obama, as nothing remotely comparable to any of them was ever found in political science doctrine before that time.

      I know, because someone on the internet said so.

  17. virag says:

    obama did not in fact fail to lead on any of these _liberal_ or _progressive_ issues; he never had any intention of leading on them and essentially got the policy outcomes he wanted all along.

  18. My FMRI shows no correlation between an argument heard by a subject and brain waves in the Wernicke’s area. any discernible effect whatsoever. Therefore the argument had no effect.

    FTFY.

  19. Hogan says:

    The Truth: The president is the biggest and most important figure in American politics; therefore everyone, including other independent political actors, listens to and respects what he says; therefore, if they don’t all adopt the president’s proposals, it must be because the president isn’t talking loud enough.

    Socrates: I think it’s more complicated than that, and in any case there’s no evidence that that’s true.

    The Truth: Well of COURSE it’s really complicated, so I COULD be right, and you can’t prove I’m not because it’s so complicated. Look, I’ll break it down for you: the president is a ginormous smokestack, so if we’re not all breathing his particulates, he must not be blowing enough smoke. Now do you get it?

    Socrates: I, uh, think I hear Xantippe calling me. Xantippe? I’m coming!

  20. jeer9 says:

    What is observable depends on the techniques and instruments employed, and these are often loaded with theoretical baggage. Thus, to have good reason to accept a theory is to have good reason to believe in the existence of those entities it postulates. Ed Marshall’s “way” is the vicious circle. You might try to get off the carousel rather than enjoying the fact that you’re going nowhere.

    • Ed Marshall says:

      What does this even mean? Political science done well predicts political behavior. By extrapolating from the past you can make a prediction regarding policy preferences of individuals and it’s relationship to presidential rhetoric and the answer is….jack shit.

  21. Moving the goal posts from “The bottom line is the bully pulpit has a far greater effect on public opinion –and by extensionlegislative outcomes — than the ZERO EFFECT argued repeatedly in these pages by Scott Lemieux,” to “public communication is a factor in public opinion,” is a smart move.

    Yes, public communication is a factor in public opinion. I don’t think anyone would deny that.

  22. Weldor says:

    All this blather regarding President Zero’s speech is quite fascinating, but no one in their right mind is going to support pissing away away another half trillion bucks to prop up Zero’s political pals.

    We just spent a trillion on public section union pension funds and other “shovel ready” nonsense and even the slower among us has grokked that to be a loser.

    Zero’s done, and so is the “progressive” agenda for the foreseeable future.

    Carry on.

  23. What___said says:

    [...] Lemieux is actually more reasonable about Obama’s fallibility, once you shove Drew Westen onto the sidelines: Facing political mortality, Obama made a pretty good speech with some pretty decent policy [...]

  24. [...] admin  In the midst of an essay on Louis C.K., Bob Lefsetz (chez Ritholtz) explains what the Lemieuxes and (now, sadly) Mannions of the world keep ignoring: One of the reasons artists have lost power is [...]

  25. [...] the midst of an essay on Louis C.K., Bob Lefsetz (chez Ritholtz) explains what the Lemieuxes and (now, sadly) Mannions of the world keep [...]

  26. [...] votes were necessary to pass a stimulus bill. Since we’re dealing with someone who who genuinely seems not to understand why you don’t always need 60 votes to pass a tax bill, I suspect that he really doesn’t [...]

  27. Ed Marshall says:

    George Edward’s did this work in On Deaf Ears. Basically, he tried to find your “bully pulpit”, and no president ever moved the needle on an issue much at all. On foreign policy and defense issues, presidential speeches calling for increased spending actually depress public support. Of course, this is no fun, and statistics and history get in the way of getting angry on the internet and making shit up.

  28. Ed Marshall says:

    Empiricism is all we have. I’m sorry the data didn’t go your way.

  29. Dale Dribble says:

    Can someone nudge me when we get to the “Well if you love Obama so much, why don’t you marry him?” scene in this subthread? That’s usually where I walk out.

  30. Scott Lemieux says:

    And also, given the right context, everyone seems to concede that the effects of the bully pulpit are marginal. Of course George W. Bush couldn’t do anything about Social Security — it was already unpopular! Obama could have gotten anything he wanted by making some speeches, but apparently not anyone else.

  31. There is an intelligent version of this argument, but it focuses on the long-term – moving the needle over years, not months; influencing legislative outcomes by influencing elections, not flipping sitting senators.

  32. Scott Lemieux says:

    I’m glad we’ve smoked you out — so we all agree that Obama using the bully pulpit would have been extremely unlikely to produce better outcomes during his administration. Excellent, since this was debate. As to longer-term effects, since your claims are carefully unfalsifiable, who knows? But that’s not what we were discussing anyway.

    Also, I hate to tell you, but it’s conservatives who generally have a huge fetish for presidential leadership; it’s Republican debates that turn into “What would Reagan do?” contests. Smart liberals understand that social change is much more likely to be bottom-up than top-down. I’ve asked several times for an important social reform that was driven primarily by presidential leadership, and have yet to get any takers.

  33. So if I can’t establish the entire specific causal chain between a smokestack and a hurricane

    No, you can’t establish either causation or correlation between smokestacks as a whole and hurricanes in general.

    Many have tried to do exactly this, and failed.

  34. Ed Marshall says:

    Hypothesis: Presidents giving speeches increases public support for a given issue.

    Experiment: compare public polling data to presidential speeches about specific issues.

    Result: No statistically significant result.

  35. No, Einstein, I was using your metaphor.

  36. This really matters a great deal to you on a personal level, doesn’t it?

    No, I didn’t notice that. I noticed you asserting it to be true, and I noticed how emotional you are about it, but not, I did not notice being “spannked” anywhere on the thread.

    I’d ask you what you were talking about, but I don’t actually care that much.

  37. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that your position on this is really just a proxy for a sort of tribalist, identity politics.

    You’re dismissed the very idea of using empirical evidence to test claims, and keep putting all of this clearly heart-felt effort into verbiage about what kind of people are the bad people.

  38. Disagree and refuting your point is not “missing” it.

    Since your own metaphor seems to elude you, I’ll spell it out more clearly.

    There is no evidence for your theory that public messaging from the President (the smokestacks in your metaphor) changes public opinion (the hurricanes). Many have looked for this connection, and they have failed to find it.

    It isn’t just a problem with being unable to match one particular smokestack with one particular hurricane, as you asserted. As I pointed out to you, they can’t even match all the smokestacks with hurricane activity in general. The efforts to find a connection between Presidential rhetoric and swings in public opinion that bring about changes in how legislators vote have consistently come up dry, to the point where there is now a broad consensus in the field – about as broad as the consensus about GHG emissions causing global warming in the field of climatology – that presidential rhetoric cannot, in fact, have a meaningful influence on public opinion about pending legislation, or change the votes of legislators.

    You keep asserting that this is an unknown. It is not an unknown.

  39. Hogan says:

    That’s just where most of the substance tends to be. The rest of what you’ve got is strong conviction and a bad metaphor.

  40. All you are getting out of these comments is ad hominems?

    What have you presented to back up your argument, or refute Scott’s and mine, other than descriptions that we’re bad people?

  41. Of course, I actually included a lengthy list of verifiable data in that post – verifiable data that not a single person was able to refute.

    It’s not bringing emotion into a debate that’s the problem, but rather, bringing nothing but emotion into the debate.

    Not only have you brought absolutely no factual evidence to back up anything you’ve written, but you’ve actually dismissed the validity of doing so. Oh, and written a lot of insults.

    You can only imagine how much it matters to me that such a person has called me a name in place of refuting any of my arguments.

  42. For example, here’s an argument:

    It’s possible that Obama could have caused some different outcomes if he handled his communcations diferently, sure. Of course the odds go up the longer these things go on and the braoder the participation of other players, but sometimes the zeitgeist changes with unexpected quickness. For example, in the face of a crisis.

    If Obama had played up the economic crisis and cleaerly pinned the blame on the Republicans and the 8 years of their failed economic policies and if he had done a masterful rhetorical job of it using strong moralistic rhetoric and much repetition and progressive rather than conservative frames, other Democrats might have picked it up and members of the media might have been swayed and the whole thing might have snowballed and he might have been able to get a bigger stimulus. The bigger stimulus might have made the economy better, making him more popular, and feeding back into the effectiveness of his rhetoric. Etc. etc.

    OK, and what evidence do you offer that this would happen?

    There is much more to the dynamics of the system than you and your extremely reductionist parrots seem to be able to comprehend.

    Period. End of story. That is the sum total of the evidence you offer for why you are right, and those of us saying that events would not have gone this way are wrong. “blah blah blah you aren’t able to comprehend.”

  43. Jupiter is in the 7th house of Mars

    Oh, is that what decades of empirical research by political scientists look like to you?

    I think I see the problem.

  44. Ed Marshall says:

    You don’t know what you are talking about, read the work and attack the methodology (which I have simplified for the purpose of this discussion). Instead you have chosen to rebel against the findings without having any idea of what you are arguing against which leads me to believe that you probably *can’t* assess the methodology in any meaningful way.

  45. I am reminded of global warming denialism.

    Over a long period of time, researchers working independently and utilizing many different methods to look at many different data points have come to a strong consensus on a question.

    A dissenter can come up with an alternate theory, but has no evidence for it. When the weight of the evidence is pointed out to him, he disparages it without being able to provide any reason to do so beyond disliking its implications and casting aspersions on those who informed him about the state of the research.

  46. Hogan says:

    Ptolemy had a model too. Remember him?

  47. Scott Lemieux says:

    And it’s not just that. As Edwards says, there are other serious problems with the power of the bully pulpit theory, starting with the fact that 1)only a tiny minority of people pay any attention to what the president says, and 2)those people tend to be high-information voters who have the most entrenched partisan views.

  48. Hogan says:

    Most of us didn’t grow up with the president. Most of us don’t see him every day. If your model takes no account of proximity, it’s even dumber than I thought.

  49. Indeed, Scott explicitly singled out “bottom up” messaging as a more plausible path to changes in public opinion on issues than presidential rhetoric.

  50. Ed Marshall says:

    The likely impact of presidential rhetoric on public opinion.

  51. Hogan says:

    That presidential speeches won’t affect public opinion or legislative outcomes in the short run. Of course, maybe if you add enough epicycles, they can.

  52. Hogan says:

    So a model that can’t accurately predict outcomes is better than accurate predictions without a model, as long as the accurate predictions aren’t as specific as the model’s inaccurate ones. Got it.

  53. Hogan says:

    Wow, I can’t even SEE the original goalposts from here.

  54. Ed Marshall says:

    Like there is fictional, magic president who has never existed, but could in the future use his rhetorical power to sway public opinion? OK. Is that it? Because no one else (and although there isn’t polling, there are other ways of measuring public opinion, you can run this experiment back to George Washington) has managed it yet.

  55. Ed Marshall says:

    That would be the kind of thing that chaos researchers work on. That is not my field, but people do exist who would be able to put some sort of value on that for you. Being a non-deterministic outcome, it’s impossible to pin down a number (by the nature of the problem), but it’s probably within the realm of possibility to come up with something that works within a certain range more than 90% of the time.

  56. Hogan says:

    They’re with the people who can tell you three months in advance what the temperature and relative humidity in Syracuse, NY will be. Thus do I refute thee, AGW!

  57. Hogan says:

    I remember someone saying that the president isn’t just a factor in public communications; he’s the most important factor, maybe more important than all the others combined. Whatever happened to that bold young man?

  58. Ed Marshall says:

    That’s pedantic, but OK, there are theorists who exist who could attempt to separate the signal from the noise involved in presidential approval ratings. To get rid of the non-deterministic pieces of the puzzle. This *isn’t* my field, but I know people who work on very similar problems.

    You are right on the internet about something this morning.

  59. jeer9 says:

    Yes, the president’s rhetorical power to change public opinion or his own party members’ views in domestic policy matters is almost nil, which must be why he has adopted deficit reduction/austerity framing and advocacy of the Catfood Commission as key components of his re-election bid. He knows any attempt to persuade the resistant to his side will fail if he follows empirical science – so it’s best to throw in his lot with the Villagers. A wise choice and one I hope he is rewarded for.

  60. I guess it depends what area you think it has an effect in. Do I think the President can use the bully pulpit to affect short-term heuristics about political tactics (i.e. get people to blame Republicans for the bad economy)? Sure, it probably can, though it requires something of an assist from the media.

    Do I think the bully pulpit can move public opinion over the long term in the realm of entrenched ideological beliefs? No, in that respect it has zero effect.

  61. he has adopted deficit reduction/austerity framing and advocacy of the Catfood Commission as key components of his re-election bid.

    Fascinating. Which country are you describing? I only follow American politics closely.

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