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Clinton and Health Care: On Deaf Ears

[ 144 ] March 2, 2012 |

I’ve been meaning to say more George Edwards’s masterwork On Deaf Ears, and since in a recent thread we had someone articulating the full-on bully pulpit myth in this thread, now is as good a time as any.

To expand a bit on what I’ve said before, On Deaf Ears evaluates the evidence with respect to the “bully pulpit” effect in several ways.  He examines the secondary literature, which going back to FDR and his fireside chats finds no evidence on a bully pulpit effect.  (Despite his popularity, FDR was generally unable to move the public in the direction of  the merits of his policy positions.)   Then, as tough cases since they were seen as effective communicators and were easily re-elected, he carefully examines the Reagan and Clinton presidencies, and (with one exception I’ll get to in a second) finds no case where a president “going public” shifted public opinion.  (The more Reagan talked spoke in support of aid to the Contras, for example, the less popular the policy got with the public.)   And this was also true with respect to the medium term as well; support for tax cuts, increased defense spending, decreased civil rights enforcement, and decrease social welfare spending was if anything less at the end of the Great Communicator’s two terms than it was at the beginning, and nor did Clinton show any ability to orient the public towards his policy preferences.   The only two cases where presidential speeches were followed by an increase in popular support for presidential initiatives were 1)Reagan’s bombing of Libya, and 2)the first president Bush and the Gulf War.   Since this effect doesn’t transfer to domestic politics and nobody considers George H.W. Bush a master communicator, it’s almost certainly the war rally effect rather than the power of presidential rhetoric per se that’s doing the work.

But the particularly striking example, which Edwards spends a lot of time on, is Clinton and health care.  Clinton, in short, did everything that armchair critics of Obama assure us would have produced a better bill than the ACA.   The administration crafted a plan itself rather than waiting for Congress to act, and using extensively tested strategies made a conscious decision to “go public” and try to indirectly pressure members of Congress to support its bill by making it more popular.   Of course, this approach couldn’t have worked out any less well; presidential communication didn’t make Clinton’s proposals any more popular, and Democrats in Congress who had been largely cut out of the loop didn’t have Clinton’s back.    And while it happened after On Deaf Ears came out, George W. Bush on Social Security tried pretty much the same allegedly brilliant approach as Clinton with exactly the same dismal results (no increase in popular support for the initiative, no traction in Congress.)

As Edwards says, the lesson that the Clinton administration drew from its health care failure was that its communication wasn’t good enough.   And even if they spend a lot of time asserting that Bush had Congress wrapped around his finger, bully pulpit believers have a million excuses for why Bush using their preferred approach with Social Security and bellyflopping doesn’t count.   And, sure, no individual case can disprove the power of the bully pulpit.   But the sheer consistency is pretty much dispositive.     Granted, Clinton’s health care strategy might (or might not) have worked better if he had Obama’s margin in the Senate to work with.   But 1)Obama had very good reasons for not wanting to emulate that approach. and 2)there’s than no reason to think it would have produced a better result and 3)there was a very real risk it would have ended up in health care reform failing entirely yet again.

I’ll bet the bully pulpit would have worked to bring liberal democracy to Iran, though!  (Via Duss)

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  1. joe from Lowell says:

    Great post. I zeroed in on this:

    The only two cases where presidential speeches were followed by an increase in popular support for presidential initiatives were 1)Reagan’s bombing of Libya, and 2)the first president Bush and the Gulf War. Since this effect doesn’t transfer to domestic politics and nobody considers George H.W. Bush a master communicator, it’s almost certainly the war rally effect rather than the power of presidential rhetoric per se that’s doing the work.

    I was struck last year by the absence of any war-rally effect from the Libya operation. I can’t think of another example of a President carrying out a military operation without there being 1) a bump in his poll numbers and 2) a jump in support for the operation once it began. I also can’t think of another example of a President doing so little to rally the public to a military operation – no Oval Office speech, no rah rah da troops rhetoric, nothing. He might as well have been announcing a change to CDBG formulas.

    Perhaps the conclusion is that the war rally effect functions not via the war, itself, producing a rally towards the President and his policy, but the war opening up an opportunity in which Presidential rhetoric actually can be effective at moving public opinion, when it is otherwise (as is so amply demonstrated) ineffective at doing so.

    • Ben says:

      What about Kosovo/the Balkans in the 90s? I have no idea how public opinion changed in response to those operations, but seems likely it would have been Libya-esque.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        I recall that it became a great deal more popular once the American military action actually began.

        It was certainly never Operation Desert Storm popular, but unless my memory completely fails me, its popularity rose considerably.

        • Sharon says:

          Well Joe, my recollection of Desert Storm was that it wasn’t that popular as well. Of course my experienced was informed by standing on Pensylvania Ave. on a cold January morning with a f*ck-ton of people protesting that action… hung over. Note to self, don’t prep for an antiwar march the night before slamming lemon drops with your non activist pals in your local boîte.
          The other thing you don’t want to do is march with your dad and the drum circle guys that he befriended drumming in front of the White House during the run up to the war.
          Loud. Did I mention, loud?

  2. Davis X. Machina says:

    I’ve been trying to make some headway against the tsunami of armbullyfiresidetristingpulpitchatter with Edwards’ book.

    The nickle version. He’s wrong because of the name of the place where he works.

    And armbullyfiresidetristingpulpitchat.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      I don’t think it’s fair to lump in “arm-twisting” (which I thing “tristing” was supposed to be) with “the bully pulpit.”

      Arm-twisting and favors actually are effective at getting Congressmen to vote your way.

  3. mpowell says:

    I tend to believe that any impact public communication from the president has on the popularity of an issue or the likelihood of it’s passage is extremely limited at best. However, it may have significantly more impact on the presidents popularity. As far as I can tell, two things impact elections: base turnout and swing voters. I think both are influenced by the media coverage of the president, even if nobody changes their mind on the issues. Swing voters are so dumb, they don’t even really connect the issues to the voting process. So just impressing them with good rhetoric and minimizing negative coverage of your side is probably effective. It’s the failure on the part of Democratic party actors to minimize the negative publicity around the ACA that I think did a lot of damage to them in the 2010 elections. Maybe the task was impossible, though.

    • david mizner says:

      The health care law, especially the mandate, is sill hugely unpopular — as many of us “armchair” critics (as opposed to “activist” champions like Scott) predicted it would be. Perhaps if President Obama wins and protects the law as a critical mass of people start feeling its benefits, it will turn out to be popular. Otherwise it will damage not just the chance for public health care but the cause of liberalism generally.

      But of course this was only the first step. Just like the stimulus was.

      • Murc says:

        I’m not sure what case you’re making here. Are you saying that a different, more liberal health-care law (one that had a public option than a mandate, for example, and/or one that was explicitly the enemy of private insurance companies rather than one designed to protect them) would be much more popular?

        You are, I think, absolutely right about that. -I- hate the mandate, for example, even though I understand why it must exist.

        But that ignores the fact that a more liberal, more popular health care bill would not have passed. Lieberman, Bayh, and Nelson would have torpedoed it and basically that would have been that.

        • It’s emo-prog projection. In the most base terms, any successful healthcare reform would require some sort of “mandate” to function. A full out single-payer system would have a mandate to pay taxes into the system, after all.

          In large part, “mandates” are just always unpoplar because people have a reflexive negative reaction to them. But in the context of insurance there’s not a lot you can do about that, because you have to make sure everyone stays in the system. Our progressive betters liked to imagine that having a public option would mitigate that, because what people really hated was being forced to pay money to private insurers, but that seems like a dubious claim at best.

          (And of course, public opinion on these things is always disjointed and, frankly, ignorant, so there’s no way to make coherent policy on the basis of public opinion)

        • david mizner says:

          Was there any particular reason that the bill couldn’t kick in for years? That’s a genuine question. Was that “needed” to buy off some corporate interest?

          So no, I’m not saying that a better bill could have passed (Although at least trying to use reconciliation to pass a PO would’ve been welcome: but 60 votes was required! that’s what we kept hearing from the President’s defenders) I’m saying that the delayed implementation combined with the lack of the PO combined with the lack of sufficient mechanisms to control costs were and are weaknesses that could doom the bill and the broader cause of liberal governance (because despite being a neoliberal bill that props up a corporate system, it’s seen as a big government program.)

          As is often the case, phony liberalism threatens the real thing.

          neo-neoliberal, corporatism

          • Murc says:

            Was there any particular reason that the bill couldn’t kick in for years? That’s a genuine question. Was that “needed” to buy off some corporate interest?

            That’s something I actually do not know the answer to. Frankly, it’s always puzzled me as well. If I had to guess, I would say it was a buy-off for queasy Senators who think change needs to come in tiny bite-sized chunks or they’ll choke on it. But that is literally just me shooting in the dark.

            at least trying to use reconciliation to pass a PO would’ve been welcome

            I honestly don’t think there were 50 votes for a public option. Oh, there were 50 Senators who were willing to SAY they would have voted for one, but the second this was tried we’d have had quite a lot of the Senate Democrats piously claiming that using reconciliation to try and pass a public option was legislative chicanery unworthy of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, and declined to vote for it.

            I might be wrong about this; maybe a PO could have got through like that. But I kind of doubt it.

            I’m saying that the delayed implementation combined with the lack of the PO combined with the lack of sufficient mechanisms to control costs were and are weaknesses that could doom the bill and the broader cause of liberal governance (because despite being a neoliberal bill that props up a corporate system, it’s seen as a big government program.)

            Ah! Okay, this? Is a genuine a legitimate concern. I too worry that the bill could collapse because of the flaws and contradictions inherent in it and that this could badly hurt liberal governance for a very long time. My HOPE is that this turns out like SSI, or Medicare; that it is gradually and painstakingly expanded into something much better than it is now.

            My FEAR is that politics operate so differently now, and that Obama’s ‘legitimate Republican positions today, worry about tomorrow when it comes’ political choices represent such a lost opportunity, that this will note happen.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              I honestly don’t think there were 50 votes for a public option.

              And even in the unlikely event that there would have been 50 votes for a public option as part of the ACA, there’s no way in hell there were anywhere near 50 votes to double-cross the wanker caucus and pass a public option as a separate deal.

            • Sharon says:

              I think the delayed implementation was a way to get a better CBO score. If I’m feeling conspiratorial, it was a way to convince unhappy PO advocates to support democrats in 2012 because that’s the only way to preserve the legislation in the face of a GOP repeal effort.

              Mostly, I think Baucus and company wanted a bill that was lighter on the federal budget.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            My recollection was that the “win” for delayed implementation was required to keep the 10 year budget projection below a certain level (since, e.g., there are start up costs due to expansion of coverage). (Plus, after that the cost bending works? Been awhile.) There was also the thought that it would take a while to get ramped up, so the formal delay didn’t matter so much.

            I’ve not checked this…

          • “Was there any particular reason that the bill couldn’t kick in for years? ”

            IIRC, it was to artificially reduce the ten year CBO projections to mollify the vacuous preferences of conservative Democratic Senators.

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t think that any different, more liberal health reform that passed would be much, if any, more popular – yet. Not unless we can also imagineer an expeditious, rose-smelling, immaculate-conceiving legislative process into existence that could be the one to enact it, and out of existence a competent political opposition to the party doing the enacting all at the same time as well. I think it’s frankly kind of bananas to think that just a somewhat, or even much, more liberal health reform would be much more popular than the one we have, all else staying constant.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        The health care law…is sill hugely unpopular

        Nope.

        the mandate, is sill hugely unpopular

        Yep.

        as many of us “armchair” critics (as opposed to “activist” champions like Scott) predicted it would be.

        Could you link to Scott saying that the mandate would be popular, or disagreeing with the statement that it would be unpopular? Because I totally do not remember that ever happening.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        s opposed to “activist” champions like Scott) predicted it would be

        I don’t recall saying it would be popular in early 2012 with a still-pretty-weak economy. I especially didn’t say that the mandate, in and of itself, would be popular — Obama’s campaign didn’t have one because it wouldn’t be, and it was fair for Clinton to criticize him for that.

        I did say it will be hard to repeal and that some of its individual provisions will be popular, and I stand by that.

        • david mizner says:

          Sorry, that was poorly worded. As I say above, I was only making fun of your trite rhetoric, whereby critics are lazy and supporters aren’t.

  4. mark f says:

    George W. Bush on Social Security tried pretty much the same allegedly brilliant approach as Clinton with exactly the same dismal results

    I remember that I was reading Breaking the Heart of the World during that tour; the book should’ve taught me everything I needed to know about the inability of a president to bully congress with awesome speechifying. But instead it just made me have uncharitable wishes for Bush’s health.

  5. JohnR says:

    Oh, bugger the ‘bully pulpit’. I don’t care if it’s another example of ‘clutch hitting’ or ‘pornography’ (“I know it when I see it, I know it’s there, and I don’t care that the numbers don’t show it!”). The more interesting question, rather than this supposed ability of the President to mobilize public opinion (and I’m always a bit leery of the applicability of a few carefully chosen examples to represent some putative effect, but that’s neither here nor there) would be how Presidents manage to get their desired policies though a resistant Congress. Public opinion is easily swayed by anyone who controls the information sources (and that, too might be an amusing little study), but what makes certain Presidents ‘effective’? Were there any common behavioral elements in those Presidents whom we can define as ‘effective’? Arm-twisting, blackmail, threats, perhaps even a direct appeal to specific population groups? I’m pretty sure that pre-emptive compromise in the face of declared intransigence is not one of those possible elements. But I’m willing to be persauded otherwise.

    • Murc says:

      This is a good question, and requires some unpacking.

      First of all, many if not most previous Congresses, despite being filled with breathtaking assemblies of crooks, liars, bigots, warmongers, and petty tyrants, have typically been run by TWO parties that had some genuine interest in governing. The ‘burn down the country’ mentality you see these days is actually kind of new.

      This has meant that coalition building was possible. When you know that the guys on the other side of the aisle hate your living guts, but that they 1)however grudgingly, accept the legitimacy of your administration, and 2)have their own wants and needs vis-a-vis the legislative process, you can generally work something out.

      Second of all, there are different values of “Presidents manage[ing] to get their desired policies through a resistant Congress.” When a President faces a Congress for which there exists a strong majority objecting to his proposed policies, the answer was usually “he does not manage at all.”

      But if its a marginal case, where there’s only a slim majority for (or against) his agenda but opposition isn’t white-hot? Typically, they managed by the aforementioned coalition building. Congress typically has its own priorities that they want to get past the veto pen without opposition, and in many case they’ll be willing to negotiate on these points. “You vote for X, I’ll vote for Y. You vote for X, I’ll make sure you don’t face a strong opponent from my party in the fall. Oh, the midwestern delegates want a new Farm Bill? Sure, I can make that happen. How many votes can they give me?” In some cases, a President could play the “vote for X or I’ll destroy you” card (usually against people in the House) but that’s rarer than you think.

      This is all Politics 101 so far, the sort of thing that’s taught in High School civics classes. But my final point, going back to my first one, is that they’re not actually applicable to present-day politics.

      There literally doesn’t exist anything the Obama Administration or Congressional Democrats can offer Congressional Republicans that they want MORE than destroying him. These people don’t care about governing more than they care about that. They don’t even care about pork, about empire-building, about lining the pockets of themselves, their backers, and their base, more than that. Would that they did! That would make them BRIBABLE, in the grand old political tradition.

      They don’t really believe he’s President. They don’t believe he’s legitimate. They are more than willing to destroy the country in order to save it.

      That’s NEW. And it makes the old paradigms for getting legislation through a resistant Congress obsolete.

      • Steve LaBonne says:

        It’s not new. It was the same with Clinton, even featuring some of the same lunatics.

        • Murc says:

          I would argue that it was actually different with Clinton in a fairly substantive way. The same Republicans who were howling about the Clenis and trying to knife him in the front were MORE than willing to cut deals with him in a private and then cast affirmative votes for them. Clinton got a lot of significant legislation passed in his second term and during and after his impeachment. Yes, a lot of it was watered-down half-a-loaf right-wing compromises or sellouts, but Congress was willing to vote for things that Clinton had endorsed. Hell, he had Republican blessings for his Supreme Court nominees, and its not like Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a right-wing shill.

          This was actually TRADITIONAL. It’s a long established practice in American politics to call someone a filthy, godless traitor to the country to their face (and to actively work to destroy them and all they hold dear) while simultaneously sitting down with them in private and hashing out a deal that you’ll vote for with a smile on your face.

          The removal of the second part of that equation is genuinely new.

        • Davis X. Machina says:

          Relatively new. There were once four parties in Congress…….but only two labels.

          Democrats who are Democrats,
          Democrats who are Republicans.
          Republicans who are Republicans.

          There used to be quite a few Republicans who are Democrats when I was a lad, but they’re extinct. Ed Brooke. Jeffords, Javits, Chafee, Hatfiels, Percy….

          A Democratic president — any Democratic president — is now essentially in the position of trying to run the executive as leader of the minority party in a coalition government.

    • Hogan says:

      Arm-twisting, blackmail, threats,

      Mister, we could use a man like J. Edgar Hoover again. Those were the days.

  6. Murc says:

    As some who has been a pretty strong advocate (some would say sycophant) of Scott’s view around here, I feel like I should articulate my own view on what I think the bully pulpit IS good for.

    It’s good for the long game. If the President of the United States is talking about something, the Very Serious People who control our discourse will often grant that subject legitimacy. Advocates (and detractors, granted) of whatever position is being articulated will suddenly find themselves with a higher profile and being taken more seriously. This can provide some assistance with moving the needle long-term, I think, where long-term is defined as ‘over the course of one or more electoral cycles.’ The conservatives have been playing this game for something like forty years now.

    It’s also good for reassuring your allies, and getting them to fight for you. FDRs fireside chats might not have had a galvanizing effect on public opinion (FDRs greatest legislative triumphs were on things that were either wildly popular already or that involved getting people who genuinely feared a violent popular uprising to sign onto as a compromise measure) but they did say to the people doing the work on the ground “I have your back. I’m not going to stop or back down, and if I do lose, it will not be for lack of trying.” That’s the sort of thing that not only fires up the activist base, but also can draw in people who support your views but have become disaffected.

    Finally, I think its good politics in many cases. Demonstrating strength, resolve, and commitment is generally helpful with the great mass of squishy, low-information swing voters who, honestly, are pretty dumb (and I will say that I think many if not most of them are bad citizens) but who respond well to that sort of thing.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Good points.

      Another thing presidential rhetoric is good for is winning elections.

      Happily, presidential rhetoric as an influencer of “the long game” is most effective when it is being employed when people are paying attention to politics and presidential rhetoric – which is to say, during campaigns.

    • Blue Neponset says:

      I think you are making a straw man argument. The bully pulpit is a propaganda tool. The idea that you can use it to immediately defeat a well funded and entrenched opposition is pretty stupid. Obama could have talked for days on end and it was never going to change Joe Lieberman’s opinion of the health care law.

      What the bully pulpit can do is get your message repeated. If Obama had used it during the death panels of August or more effectively during the debt ceiling debates then he might have gotten the chattering classes to stop repeating Republican talking points over and over and over again.

      Also, as someone mentioned above, using the bully pulpit is part of a long term strategy. Dubya and Cheney were squawking about tax cuts paying for quite a bit when they were in charge of the Executive Branch. Does Mr. Edwards or Prof. Lemieux think that had no effect on public perception?

      • Blue Neponset says:

        Whoops, didn’t mean to respond to this comment.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Dubya and Cheney were squawking about tax cuts paying for quite a bit when they were in charge of the Executive Branch. Does Mr. Edwards or Prof. Lemieux think that had no effect on public perception?

        Bush and Cheney did not make upper-class tax cuts popular, and making getting your own taxes cut popular doesn’t exactly require brilliant political strategery.

        • Davis X. Machina says:

          Garbage points, in other words. Even I shoot over 50% from the paint, undefended.

        • Blue Neponset says:

          They contributed to the narrative that tax cuts pay for themselves by using the bully pulpit. Which in turn gave Dubya and other Republicans cover for adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit in order to pay for the tax cuts.

          This is the kind of thing we bully pilpitters are talking about. It is a tool to help make it easier for people to accept your agenda. It won’t change people’s minds about anything, instead, like any other propaganda tool, it deflects attention or reinforces a narrative. If Obama had effectively used it to respond to the death panel nonsense he might have made it easier for others to support the crappy health care law we got. Instead, the Republicans got a bunch of morans to hate something they should have at least tepidly endorsed.

      • Murc says:

        I think you are making a straw man argument. The bully pulpit is a propaganda tool. The idea that you can use it to immediately defeat a well funded and entrenched opposition is pretty stupid.

        That’s the thing. Scott isn’t making this argument in a vacuum, because he wants to create a straw man and then knock it down. He’s making this argument because many, many people DO think you can use the bully pulpit to defeat an entrenched and well-funded opposition. We know this because they’ve said so, right here on this blog and in numerous other places. As such, it does not count as a straw man.

        If Obama had used it during the death panels of August or more effectively during the debt ceiling debates then he might have gotten the chattering classes to stop repeating Republican talking points over and over and over again.

        I absolutely agree with this, but I should note that this is entirely separate from “bully pulpit gets us universal health care.” It rather speaks to both the overall communications strategy of the Obama Administration and to their sometimes breathtaking, startling naivete, two subjects on which I could criticize them heavily for days on end.

      • chris says:

        If Obama had used it during the death panels of August or more effectively during the debt ceiling debates then he might have gotten the chattering classes to stop repeating Republican talking points over and over and over again.

        Those would be the same chattering classes who work for corporations owned by Republicans, right? Literally owned?

        Yeah, good luck with that.

    • scott says:

      This is the point that needs to be made, and you make it well. The focus shouldn’t be on the short term, on whether in isolation one of FDR’s fireside chats did or didn’t move the needle on a particular item. It’s whether usng the bully pulpit helps you to define who you are, what your message is, and why people should support you. This post discounts FDR’s chats but acknowledges FDR’s popularity. How do we think FDR got to be popular? People at the time and since thought that these events helped FDR communicate that he was with them on things that mattered, and that helped him politically in the long run to get a liberal program enacted. I just think we ought to leave straw men behind. Is the bully pulpit magically effective? No. Is it useless? Also, no. We can have arguments about whether the current incumbent uses it as well as he could, and that’s eminently debatable, but pretending that it’s worthless just strikes me as silly.

      • Murc says:

        We can have arguments about whether the current incumbent uses it as well as he could, and that’s eminently debatable, but pretending that it’s worthless just strikes me as silly.

        I do believe that uppercase Scott would agree with everything in that sentence.

      • Davis X. Machina says:

        How do we think FDR got to be popular?

        Terrible, legendarily terrible opposition, and terrible, legendarily terrible times.

        Any president elected in ’32 was going to be top-five or bottom-five.

        • TT says:

          Unemployment dropping by about 50% during his first term had a little something to do with FDR’s popularity as well. And he was skillful at associating the New Deal in the public mind with improvement in the economy, even though his other decisions, such as abandoning the gold standard, had more to do with it, along with looser monetary policy by the Fed.

  7. Steve LaBonne says:

    The right conclusion, I think- and have thought for a long time- is that we need to get our eye back on the ball; away from an excessive fixation on the White House and toward ground-up party building. That’s how the right succeeded.

    • Bill Murray says:

      This likely won’t happen as long as the interests in charge of disbursing party funds allows. Which will probably be never after how things went down following the 1968 convention

      • Steve LaBonne says:

        What I meant to say is that the party needs to be taken over from the ground up, as the wingers did across the aisle. So that those power that be no longer are.

        What’s preventing people from focusing on that? Along with our short attention span (the above would take decades of grinding, boring county-committeee-level scutwork) and penchant for quarreling among ourselves, one of the great weaknesses of liberals is longing for a new FDR to hero-worship. But FDR flourished under truly exceptional circumstances and anyway was not everything that some historically naive liberals take him for. Salvation will not come from the top down.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          Party-building?

          When I think “ground-up,” I think about city councils and country boards.

          • Steve LaBonne says:

            Local public offices are important but so are party offices.

            • Lee says:

              I think the progressive mentality makes both hard. A lot of progressives are secret or not so secret parliamentarians, that is a lot of them really wish they could hold a constitutional convention and transform the U.S. to a parliamentary republic, preferably weakening federalism to. This makes them unlikely to focus on local and state offices.

              At the same time, many progressives view non-electoral politics in the prism of things like protests or rallies rather than attending party meetings and trying to get the most viable progressive nominated.

              • Mark says:

                I am a non-secret parliamentarian and Constitutional conventionalist. I believe this country will never have the government it needs until we have a Westminster-style parliament, proportional representation, multi-member districts, private political donations made illegal, easy ballot access, and so on.

                That said, I am also in favor of postponing any Constitutional convention until there is a way to prevent conservatives from influencing it in any way, and I vote in every local election, always the straight Democratic line. I even gave money to the Democratic candidate for county exec last year.

                I despise party work, though. I’ve tried it, hate it, it makes me feel thoroughly disempowered, and I won’t do it. So I guess that makes me something or other.

                • LeeEsq says:

                  The only way to have a constitutional convention without conservative participation is through a coup d’etat and other questionable methods. Thats why I just favor tinkering with the system in ways that do not involve amending the constitution like eliminating the filibuster.

                • “So I guess that makes me something or other.”

                  A spoiled child?

    • joe from Lowell says:

      +1.

      The key word is “excessive.” It is still important who wins the White House; it’s just not the whole ball game, as it is often presented as.

  8. Bill Murray says:

    One thing about the Clinton plan is that when his name wasn’t attached, it was well received. I doubt I can find the polling anymore, but when the plan was described to people without Clinton’s name attached 2 of 3 people polled liked it. When it was described exactly as before except starting with to paraphrase The Clinton health care plan … 2 in 3 did not like it.

    Which says I guess that there are bully pulpits on both sides, but I would say that not using your sides unnecessarily cedes territory to the other side.

  9. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    Since none of these policies are enacted by plebiscite, the more interesting question from a policy-making perspective is whether Congress changes its behavior due to public messaging on the part of Presidents. Does Edwards deal directly with that issue, or is he just narrowly focused on public opinion itself?

    • Njorl says:

      True. I’d say the real test is if a president can tap into extant public opinion to bring pressure to bear on specific members of congress. The problem is that members of congress are usually more popular in their district/state than the president is. That’s probably most true for those willing to defy the president. Even when that isn’t true, the defiant congressman is usually aligned with the public opinion in his district/state.

      The easiest job for the “Bully Pulpit” would be to bring pressure on a congressman who is defying the wishes of his constituents. I wonder if there is any evidence of that working.

      • Davis X. Machina says:

        …members of congress are usually more popular in their district/state than the president is

        And that can be turned into money. Senators are now all, for fundraising purposes, independent barons with the ability to tell the President and the Party to bugger off come November and still win.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Edwards deals with this more in his other book. IIRC. My understanding is that presidents can sometimes mobilize public opinion against recalcitrant legislators, although obviously legislators retain substantial autonomy.

  10. Njorl says:

    The problem is none of them clutched their presidential seal medallion and chanted “PULPIT POWER ACTIVATE!”

  11. JMG says:

    The inherent limit to the bully pulpit is that it involves, either implicitly or explicitly, the President asking Americans to do something. This is ALWAYS resisted. The evidence is pretty clear Americans don’t WANT to govern themselves. Too much like work.

  12. jim48043 says:

    At the risk of asking a stupid question, would anyone offer a good explanation of why the President’s bully pulpit is less effective and to be feared than the advertisements made possible easier by Citizens United?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Many more people see TV ads than watch presidential speeches?

    • Because the president can be held accountable for what he says, can’t blatantly lie or use incendiary language without consequences.

      • chris says:

        Well, I’m not sure the second part has been tested, but the first part is clearly wrong. Bush blatantly lied a lot and still got two terms, no impeachment, no prosecution.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Presidential rhetoric is effective, and should be feared, in similar ways to the ads you mention.

      Neither is going to sway votes in Congress. Both can help swing elections.

      All of those ads that said “Call Congressman So and So and tell him to vote no on HR blah blah blah” were written that way because of campaign finance laws that made it illegal to run ads that explicitly call for a candidate’s defeat. They used that language as a fig leaf, and weren’t aimed at changing his vote at all. They were always barely-concealed campaign ads.

  13. ploeg says:

    The administration crafted a plan itself rather than waiting for Congress to act

    This is true if “itself” means the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, which had its own issues re: releasing a draft plan in a timely manner. In fact, Congress had to wait on the administration for months before Congress got a solid draft plan.

    Probably the key political problem with the Clinton health care reform proposal was that it was not ready immediately after the inauguration. Lawmakers would not have minded having a first draft to riff on if it were presented to them as such, and a timely first draft would likely have resulted in a much better outcome. As Scott notes, giving good speeches about your first draft would have little practical effect.

    One also notes that Obama and congressional leaders had somewhat the same problem in 2009. Granting that it was not possible to act right away, they let themselves be strung along by purported Republican moderates until it was almost too late.

    • Murc says:

      Probably the key political problem with the Clinton health care reform proposal was that it was not ready immediately after the inauguration.

      Obama was inaugurated in the midst of the worst economic crisis in nearly a century. Had he sent a proposal to Congress just then he’d have been justifiably attacked for focusing on a fancy new entitlement when the country was collapsing around him.

      Yes, it’s true Congress SHOULD be able to do more than one thing at once. Sadly, this is not the case.

      • ploeg says:

        Yes, which is why I said, “Granting that it was not possible to act right away….” The point is that, after they acted on all that other stuff, they still spent far too long waiting on Grassley, Snowe, et al to decide that they were going to vote No.

        • Murc says:

          Ah, I missed that qualifier. As someone who gets regularly incensed when people disregard his own qualifiers, I apologize, ploeg.

          You are bang on right with regard to how much unwarranted trust the Administration invested in the good faith of Grassley, Baucus, etc.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            If they hadn’t made a big show of trying to woo Grassley and Snowe, they wouldn’t have gotten Lieberman, Baucus, and Nelson.

            The most “bipartisan” Republicans had to be seen to either be mollified, or to be impossible to mollify, in order for the most “bipartisan” Democrats to commit to the bill.

            • Which still represents a mistake, in a very base sense, but it’s another mistake that can be attributed not to Obama or Congressional leadership’s desires, but to the vacuous preferences of “moderate” Senate Democrats.

  14. John Emerson says:

    I’m always comforted to hear that Obama has done everything right, is the best President since Roosevelt, and can’t be blamed for what has happened since Presidents can’t really do anything about anything anyway.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      Which would be fatuous, if it were actually what Scott were claiming.

      But it isn’t.

    • Steve LaBonne says:

      Invest in straw futures!

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Noting that an argument is insufficiently critical of Obama for your tastes tells us nothing about that argument’s truth value.

      It just tells us that you are unable to process arguments in any manner other than whether they are sufficiently critical of Obama, and equally unable to prevent yourself from advertising that shortcoming.

      • John Emerson says:

        Joe: I was registering my opinion of the crap Lemiux has been pumping out for as long as I remember. I was doing this in a sarcastic way in a 34-word post. I was not claiming to have refuted this particular post or any of the others I remember.

        To you this is something no one ever should do and indicative of a grave character deficiency, but why should anyone take you seriously? You’re just pissing too.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          I don’t actually think that Obama has been the best president since FDR, but anyway you apparently see this as a bigger compliment than I do. The way leftier-than-thous also romanticize past political leaders is really odd, as is their imagining that social change generally comes from the top down when this happens essentially never.

          I do look forward to the day when John doesn’t repeat this same dumb strawman argument and makes the substantive argument he keeps promising but never delivering.

        • Njorl says:

          It had the appearance of sarcasm, but did not make sense as sarcasm. You may want to avoid future attempts.

          You could practice using sarcasm by warning people that you are doing so, and notifying them that there is a good chance that you’re getting it wrong. That way you’ll get feedback, and may eventually get the hang of it.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          You’re just pissing too.

          Whatever.

          Anybody who wants to go back and compare what I’ve had to say to your comments, go right ahead.

          As I said, you can’t even tell the difference; all you can do is rank a comment on your Obama scale, and you just admitted it.

    • Uncle Kvetch says:

      John, I know where you’re coming from, because I get weary of this tendency of Scott’s as well. I wouldn’t call it hippie-punching necessarily, but it does veer close to “All criticisms of Obama (other than the ones I post myself) are made by emo-prog children who are pissed that the President hasn’t personally delivered their pony yet.”

      That said, people like Scott and joe know a hell of a lot more about procedural matters than I do, and they’ve done a very effective job of convincing me that, given our utterly dysfunctional and rotten political system, Obama is about the best we can hope for. That’s an unmitigated tragedy in my view, but I can’t wish it away.

      • John Emerson says:

        The part about the broken system I get. The part that Obama is the best we can hope for — maybe, in the immediate term. But I don’t get that somehow Obama isn’t part of the brokenness, but rather the “second most progressive President since FDR” (that’s from the archives). If you make a lot of excuses, you shouldn’t celebrate.

        It makes much more sense to me to say that Obama is a determinedly anti-progressive centrist President who needs progressives to think that he’d really be on their side if he only could. That’s the normal way to manage troublesome supporters.

  15. John Emerson says:

    As I remember it, at one point or another Scott has claimed all three of those things, though maybe not in the same post or the same sentence. Probably I should have said “did almost everything right”.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      As I remember it, the prom queen spent my entire freshman year staring at my groin.

      As I remember it.

    • John Emerson says:

      My, it’s easy to get blabber out of you guys.

      Has Scott not said pretty much those three things over the last several months? (Allowing for a bit of sarcastic hyperbole on my part, maybe?

      The real nub is when he switches betweem bragging Obama up and making excuses for him.

      • JRoth says:

        Sounds awfully familiar to these ears.

        Remember how Obama pivoted from jobs to the deficit in January 2010, yet no one talked about the deficit? And then remember when he pivoted back to jobs in September, but everyone talked about the deficit? Me neither.

        For 22 months after Obama announced in the SOTU (which Scott always says is 100% meaningless) that deficits were the most important thing, all that was discussed in DC was deficits. In the 6 months since Obama announced that jobs were all that mattered, the deficit has vanished from discussion. Somehow, this proves that presidential speeches are literally inconsequential. I guess deficit talk relates to air pressure or something.

        • Murc says:

          Has all of that talk moved Congressional or public opinion very much, or gotten any legislation passed?

          OF COURSE when the President starts talking about something, other people start talking about it as well. That fact is not in dispute. The matter in question is whether that talk actually makes a difference in substantive public policy terms over the short and medium terms.

          • Triplanetary says:

            Yep, basically all it means is that the talking heads on CNN will be spouting their opposing views on deficits rather than jobs this month, and jobs rather than deficits next month. It doesn’t mean the public’s going to suddenly be swayed to see things the President’s way.

            Scott never said that people don’t pay attention to what the President says. But they’re not trying to follow an argument and verify its soundness or veracity. They’re just going to compare it to their preconceptions and find it either a match or a mismatch. And then it becomes dinner conversation along the lines of, “Did you hear this ridiculous thing the president said last week…”

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            The president unquestionably has agenda-setting power. This is a very real power, and a quite important one. Clinton and Bush certainly got the political process to focus on health care and Social Security. It’s entirely different than the ability to force median votes in the Senate to do things they don’t want to do, or to substantively change public opinion.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Has Scott not said pretty much those three things over the last several months?

        No.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        Has Scott not said pretty much those three things over the last several months? (Allowing for a bit of sarcastic hyperbole on my part, maybe?

        No.

        You can’t even tell the difference. You read what Scott writes about politics, and all you can see is a defense of Obama. No matter what he says, no matter how well backed up, the only thing you get out of it is what you wrote above.

        That’s on you.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      There’s this thing called an archive and Scott’s posts are readily available by a simple menu selection. It doesn’t take long to scan even a months worth of posts.

      If you want to win this point, don’t cop out with the exceeding lame “as I remember”, do the work.

      Thus far no one who has made this sort of claim has been right.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        In fairness, this argument would “sound familiar” if you look through the archives…from the comments of people like JROth and John, who have given us a huge straw archive.

    • jeer9 says:

      Lemieux lives in a Panglossian world in which everything Obama achieves legislatively is the best he could have done under the circumstances. When Obama perpetuates and strengthens the worst civil liberty abuses of the Bush/Cheney era, this is because no political constituency exists to protest the issue. When Obama adopts the rhetoric of the deficit hawk douchebags, the bully pulpit has little influence on our national discourse or the pushing of a progressive agenda. When Obama’s DOJ refuses to prosecute the banksters, though ample evidence of their guilt exists, and instead negotiates a settlement that rewards them, what one hears from Lemieux is … crickets. His post on Obama as the second most progressive president since FDR was actually a slam on BHO and a much-needed re-evaluation of LBJ. The piece just happened to be written during a period of deep progressive disillusionment with the president, and any misunderstanding of the post’s purpose by the reader shows a clear lack of reading skills. Lemieux is indeed full of sensible centrist crap but then he lives in such a fog of apologetic bullshit that he’s no longer able to distinguish between special pleading and rhetorical smoke-blowing.

      • Murc says:

        Jeer, no offense, but this is insane. I’m actually going to take the time to take this apart, although it may be a waste.

        Lemieux lives in a Panglossian world in which everything Obama achieves legislatively is the best he could have done under the circumstances.

        First of all, Scott has never made this point. Second of all, even if he had, it would in fact be mostly true.

        Barack Obama is not a legislator. He is a President. And hey, guess what? A lot of the issues that have come up while he was President have been ones that have strong, muscular, bipartisan constituencies in Congress that love them some status quo. This is when the President’s power is at its lowest ebb.

        I believe Obama is a lot more centrist than he ought to be. This is cause for concern, and it would be a greater cause for concern if we had a Congress filled with labor radicals. As it is, Obama governs in many respects to the LEFT of his own party. That means the PARTY is sick. He has been falling down in his responsibility, as party leader, to try and make it well again. But that has nothing to do with the viability of getting more left-wing legislation through the Congress.

        Your ire with Obama is more productively directed at Congressional Democrats, many of whom make Obama look like MLK.

        When Obama perpetuates and strengthens the worst civil liberty abuses of the Bush/Cheney era, this is because no political constituency exists to protest the issue.

        I have never seen Scott or, in fact, anyone else make this case. I’m going to need to demand a cite.

        I have seen the case made that Obama is genuinely awful on civil liberties (which is true) and that no meaningful political constituency exists to protest the issue. The latter is not causal with respect to the former in anything more than the most tenuous of ways. And I do believe most of our hosts here, especially Campos and Loomis, would agree that Obama has been damned awful on civil liberties.

        When Obama adopts the rhetoric of the deficit hawk douchebags, the bully pulpit has little influence on our national discourse or the pushing of a progressive agenda.

        I am baffled as to how the two clauses of this statement are linked. Scott has never claimed that the bully pulpit or the agenda-setting power the President has has little influence on the national discourse or the pushing of a progressive agenda. I -challenge- you to show me where he’s said that, because it isn’t true. What has been said, repeatedly, is that the bully pulpit is useless for moving votes in the Congress over the shirt term.

        As for Obama adopting the rhetoric of deficit hawk douchebags, yes. He’s done that. It’s a genuine black mark against him. Who has said otherwise? Who HERE has said otherwise?

        When Obama’s DOJ refuses to prosecute the banksters, though ample evidence of their guilt exists, and instead negotiates a settlement that rewards them, what one hears from Lemieux is … crickets.

        Okay, you might actually have a point with this one. I don’t recall Scott coming down particularly hard on the DOJ for letting the banksters slide, and the Administration for legitimating and rewarding their crimes. I know that Campos and Loomis have, but I’m not sure Scott has.

        Gosh. There might be an issue Scott hasn’t opined on strongly! This is clearly a huge failing.

        His post on Obama as the second most progressive president since FDR was actually a slam on BHO and a much-needed re-evaluation of LBJ.

        I read it as a reality check, a notification to people that the system is deeply, DEEPLY fucked up, if a milquetoast centrist like Obama is actually the second or third most liberal president since FDR. Scott is a big fan of clarity, of people seeing things as they really are before they decide what to do about them. It’s one of his big hobby horses, in fact.

        The piece just happened to be written during a period of deep progressive disillusionment with the president, and any misunderstanding of the post’s purpose by the reader shows a clear lack of reading skills.

        You mean this as sarcasm when in fact this is a simple statement of fact.

        • jeer9 says:

          Murc,
          Thanks for the detailed, if unconvincing, response – especially towards a poor, unhinged soul like myself. We really do seem to be reading a different blog.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          I have seen the case made that Obama is genuinely awful on civil liberties (which is true) and that no meaningful political constituency exists to protest the issue. The latter is not causal with respect to the former in anything more than the most tenuous of ways.

          Yes.

          I read it as a reality check, a notification to people that the system is deeply, DEEPLY fucked up, if a milquetoast centrist like Obama is actually the second or third most liberal president since FDR.

          Largely, yes, although it’s also a critique of people who expect presidents to be at the forefront of social change although they never are.

          It’s worth noting that people keep bringing this up, and yet nobody has another candidate. And it’s amusing as well, of course, that people who pat themselves on the back for being tough-minded about American politics see this is major praise for Obama.

          • Mike D. says:

            What do we think is causal with respect to the former clause? Is there a chance those causal things mitigate the shortcomings at all? Or is the cause simply the president being a malicious predator of civil liberties?

            I would just also note that the clause in question, “When Obama perpetuates and strengthens the worst civil liberty abuses of the Bush/Cheney era” is not actually inconsistent with the record in fact being a mixed one (which is itself not inconsistent with Obama being genuinely awful on civil liberties). There are areas where he is an improvement, though obviously adopting and worsening the worst abuses does make you genuinely awful. But the point is, when there are areas where there is improvement, when you combine that with a campaign that convincingly (to me) suggested an earnest desire to be better, this all leads, for me, to the question: What in fact was causal wrt to the outcome that we’ve actually experienced?

        • chris says:

          I read it as a reality check, a notification to people that the system is deeply, DEEPLY fucked up, if a milquetoast centrist like Obama is actually the second or third most liberal president since FDR.

          I’d say that’s not even the system being fucked up, it’s the electorate. People — lots of them — actually WANTED to elect tools like Reagan, Bush and Bush. Every election there are people — majorities! — that vote for Issa, Inhofe, Sessions — even Helms and Thurmond when they were alive. That’s not “the system”. That’s the people getting what they wanted good and hard (h/t Mencken).

          We can’t have more and better Democratic politicians until we have more and better liberal voters. Just because your personal social circle is to the left of 80% of the country doesn’t mean Obama can afford to be.

          …Come to think of it, I wonder how much attacking Obama from the left correlates with the blueness of the attacker’s state/neighborhood/demographic? People who live in purple or red states might have more realistic expectations for how much liberalism can be obtained how fast.

      • I find the projection of wingnuts (on both sides) to be rather fascinating. To wit, no one I’ve seen has argued that the President “doesn’t matter,” merely that the President has very little political ability to move legislative priorities in the face of entrenched Congressional opposition, and that there’s approximately zero examples of Presidents “rallying public opinion” to change the votes of recalcitrant Congresscritters.

        On the other hand, it really does seem as though you’re making an argument that Congress doesn’t matter, and exists only to act at the President’s beckon call so long as he exerts sufficient political will power.

        And really, this complaining about calling Obama the second most progressive President since FDR really does give away the game. As Scott asked upthread; who else would you give that distinction to? You get to pick from Truman, Eisenhower, Kennnedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush.

  16. Dana says:

    Since apparently I inspired this post I feel obliged to comment, even though I’m here late and have little to add.

    I’d like to point out that I never used the phrase “bully pulpit” though I suppose it is at least partly what I had in mind.

    I also think there are some assumptions about what I was trying to say. To be clear, I don’t have strong feelings about the ACA, or Evan Bayh’s role in the debate, and I am/was not a public option-partisan. I just mainly think the health care debate went on way too long, and was far too politically damaging. We could have gotten the same result much more quickly for much less political capital if the White House had handled things better.

    I think the particular subject, or the policy proposal, has something to do with public opinion, doesn’t it? And the circumstances under which it is discussed/proposed? I mean, privatizing Social Security vs. universal health care is not really an apples-to-apples comparison.

    And on health care specifically, did Obama have a lot of minds to change? From a quick search:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/health/policy/21poll.html?_r=2&ref=us
    Seems like Obama had a lot of public goodwill, personally and politically even on health care reform in particular, and he squandered it. So apparently somebody (or -bodies) can change people’s minds on health care, but not the president/party in power? Apparently, the White House can’t even use the bully pulpit to retain support they already have? I realize that poll was stuffed with generalities, but it’s night and day compared to polls on the same issue from early 2010.

    • Murc says:

      I just mainly think the health care debate went on way too long, and was far too politically damaging. We could have gotten the same result much more quickly for much less political capital if the White House had handled things better.

      I don’t think many people here will argue with this.

      Seems like Obama had a lot of public goodwill, personally and politically even on health care reform in particular, and he squandered it.

      Define “squandered.” If you mean “he started doing stuff, and then people started not liking him”, well, that happens. NOBODY maintains numbers at the level Obama did while governing, except in really weird situations like being in the middle of World War II.

      So apparently somebody (or -bodies) can change people’s minds on health care, but not the president/party in power?

      I would hazard that not a whole lot of those people actually changed their minds on health care. They changed their minds on something called the ACA and on anything that was associated with Obama.

      Support for the ACA goes up SHARPLY if 1) it is explained to people without telling them “this is Obamacare” or 2) they don’t actually know what is in it until its explained to them.

      And yeah, that kind of public opinion battle can be fought and won using the bully pulpit, although having your own noise machine is a lot more effective at it than just one guy. But these means precisely dick in terms of moving votes in the Senate.

      If what you want to argue is that the White House has mishandled their entire communications and engagement strategy from day one, you won’t get a lot of argument from me. If what you want to argue is that the White House could have gotten substantively better legislation with a better communications strategy, I’m prepared to say that you’re wrong about that.

      • “I don’t think many people here will argue with this.”

        I will. Forcefully. For a couple of reasons:

        1. I see no evidence whatsoever that the damaging delays and need for ancillary nonsense was driven by the White House as opposed to the Wanker Caucus in the Senate. It’s easy to say, in retrospect, that Obama should have told the Gang of 6 to knock it off, but how, exactly, would he have forced Baucus and the other Democrats who spent ages trying to get ANY Republican support for action to comply and, more importantly, how could it have done so without losing the support of so much as a single Democrat’s support for the bill?

        2. This may be somewhat counter-intuitive, but while the delays and procedural hang ups might have been politically damaging, I think they also made the bill more substantively progressive. That’s because there was clearly a meaningful contingent of Senate Democrats who were desperate to get some nominal moderate Republican support for the bill, and had a group of Snowe-Collins-Grassley walked into Max Baucus’ office and said, “okay, here’s a less comprehensive package of things we’ll all agree to vote for,” roughly 5-10 Democrats would have jumped on that, killing comprehensive reform in an instant. By having the process draw out and allowing the tactical extremists in the GOP to unify opposition to ANY bill, Democrats might have cost themselves at the ballot box, but they also gave the Nelsons, Bayhs, and Landrieus in the caucus no options between working with the Democrats to the left of them or joining the Republicans in total opposition to their party on its signature issue.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      We could have gotten the same result much more quickly for much less political capital if the White House had handled things better.

      This is the really hard thing to show. You don’t just get to help yourself to it. IIRC, the Clinton plan started out strong then lost support, partly through a public relations campaign. What it never had was enough votes. The Obama team went out of its way to avoid what it saw as the problems with the Clinton approach (and other past Dem near misses) and ended up having the votes, just barely. So the wankers had enormous leverage at every stage of the game. I mean, what was Obama going to do to the Gang of Six?

      I also consider moves like not punishing Lieberman at the start of the term to be, well, smarter than I would have done. I really really wanted to punish Lieberman and I even thought it’d be good politics. At various points during the reform effort, I thought it was the right thing to have had done! But I was wrong. Lieberman pissed on it, made it worse, but voted for it in the end. Which is what was needed to get reform through.

      We don’t need a generic “presidents are highly constrained esp. on domestic policy” belief to observe that Obama’s first congress was 1) amazingly productive of progressive legislation, 2) extremely sensitive to a handful of very unprogressive senators, 3) productive of much less progressive legislation that lots of us wanted, in spite of some of it (e.g., stimulus) being predictably helpful to Democratic electoral outcomes.

      • R Johnston says:
        We could have gotten the same result much more quickly for much less political capital if the White House had handled things better.

        This is the really hard thing to show.

        Not so much so. The Administration was pretty explicit about trying to pass insurance reform as a bipartisan effort, and the political blowback against the ACA traces directly back to this ridiculous administration policy. Efforts to turn insurance reform into a bipartisan affair needlessly complicated the legislation, left “moderate” Democrat Max Baucus the main power proker for the legislation in the Senate, took off the table as too “liberal” even ideas that Ben Nelson might have been convinced to support, dragged things out until the Democrats no longer had 60 in the Senate, and were completely hopeless from the start since there was always a zero percent chance of getting any Senate Republicans on board.

        And, of course, delaying implementation of the exchanges until 2014 was one of the most pig-ignorant political moves of my lifetime. Even if you doubt that the legislation could have been much substantively better, giving the Republicans five years to lie and fearmonger about the ACA in an effort to undermine it before it fully kicks in is an unforgivable political sin, an own goal by the administration. If that means temporary Federal operation of the exchanges until the states get up to speed, so be it. It’s like they learned nothing from the Supreme Court’s “with all deliberate speed” debacle. When the opposition’s goal is to tear you down by any means necessary and at all costs, you don’t delay implementation.

        The Obama administration’s whole approach to insurance reform grossly and unforgivably underestimated the malevolence of the Republican party. If it hadn’t done so then at the very least reform would have passed while Kennedy was still alive and the exchanges would be operating today.

        • “Efforts to turn insurance reform into a bipartisan affair needlessly complicated the legislation, left “moderate” Democrat Max Baucus the main power proker for the legislation in the Senate…”

          Well, no, the fact that Baucus was the chairman of the Finance Committee that had jurisdiction over issues involving Medicare while being arguably the least progressive committee in the entire Senate did that.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Not so much so. The Administration was pretty explicit about trying to pass insurance reform as a bipartisan effort, and the political blowback against the ACA traces directly back to this ridiculous administration policy. Efforts to turn insurance reform into a bipartisan affair needlessly complicated the legislation, left “moderate” Democrat Max Baucus the main power proker for the legislation in the Senate, took off the table as too “liberal” even ideas that Ben Nelson might have been convinced to support, dragged things out until the Democrats no longer had 60 in the Senate, and were completely hopeless from the start since there was always a zero percent chance of getting any Senate Republicans on board.

          This is extremely tendentious and I don’t see that you remotely have the evidence to support this. Let’s start with:

          The Administration was pretty explicit about trying to pass insurance reform as a bipartisan effort,

          Arguably this was part of the winning strategy.

          Efforts to turn insurance reform into a bipartisan affair needlessly complicated the legislation

          You need to show that it was plausible that reform would have passed at all without this effort. (Actually, ideally, you’d show that it would have made the overall legislative effort better off.)

          I don’t think this is an easy sell. I can see other paths to legislation, but it’s really hard to see how being more polarising would do the job. At the very least, you have to factor in the increased risk of failure. You are just not taking into account the actual structures that were there (e.g., see Brien’s comment).

          I’m not asking for a strong predictive model, just a vaguely plausible one with a reasonable level of detail. How does pissing off Lieberman (which abandoning bipartisanship would have done) get us to more progressive passed health care reform?

    • Hogan says:

      Health care reform is a ridiculously hard issue to poll on; it has lots of moving and interlocking parts, nearly everyone is involved somehow but in very different situations, the major constituents have widely varying levesl of issue education and mobilization. People who favor single payer in the abstract are demonstrably reluctant to give up what they have if they’re going to end up with something that could possibly be worse. In short, “let’s do something” is always going to poll better than “let’s do this specific thing.”

  17. bobbyp says:

    Perhaps all those moderate Republicans are now calling themselves Democrats, thus totally messing up the hope that the disappeared faction known as “those servile southern Democrats who went along as long as we ignore segregation” could easily be replaced.

    They weren’t. It’s one of those irony things.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I’m instinctually in the OP’s and the book author’s camp on the bully pulpit effect being pretty much bunk (even though I also intuitively think that presidential rhetoric must matter in some way – I’m just not sure exactly how), but, I mean, c’mon. They didn’t even make the president the primary face of the health reform they pushed. How can that be a test case for the presidential bully pulpit effect?

  19. milesthedog says:

    I have not read the book but I wonder if the second Iraq war was covered. I seem to remembef that the President’s public warnings-who can forget the mushroom cloud-did appear to influene public opinion.

  20. [...] change to come from the top down you’re going to be perennially disappointed (and that goes triple if you think it will come from presidents “educating the public” by using the Political [...]

  21. [...] There is no evidence that the bully pulpit can shift public opinion, and voluminous evidence that it… Conveniently, Ezra Klein has laid this out in extensive detail in the New Yorker. Whatever Aaron Sorkin or Aaron Influenced shows and movies have told you, politics is a debating society.    It’s nice to think that we’d have public policy outcomes like Denmark had Michael Dukakis just thought up that clever rebuttal you wrote for him after the fact, but this isn’t actually how politics works. [...]

  22. [...] what Webb is describing is a Clinton strategy, which Obama had very good reasons not to use since it was a complete disaster. The resulting process in the World’s Worst Deliberative Body was highly inefficient, but [...]

  23. [...] see any reason to believe that the BULLY PULPIT matters more with respect to same-sex marriage than it does for anything else, but either way he doesn’t get credit for secret feelings; what matters is whether he comes [...]

  24. [...] presidency unusual importance, and since LBJ had extensive experience in Congress he (unlike, say, Clinton on health care) he was well aware that the idea that you could go over the head of Congress and impose your will [...]

  25. [...] BULLY PULPIT obsessives can’t remember the details of presidential speeches.) Nonetheless, as a general rule using the bully pulpit can’t sway public opinion, so I won’t believe that Obama’s [...]

  26. [...] to the existing broader political coalitions), this would be more useful and important. But there’s no evidence that this power exists in most cases, and at least as of now Obama and SSM has not been shown to be an exception to the [...]

  27. [...] — hard to see any problems with this plan. I mean, this “going public” strategy sure worked well for Clinton, and Obama’s rhetorical skills sure did make the PPACA immensely [...]

  28. [...] Given that presidents with their unusual visibility and extensive communication apparatus have no demonstrated ability to shift public opinion in their favor, the idea that a third party candidate speaking for a few minutes about the appalling nature of the [...]

  29. [...] just presidenting 101 — Obama, unlike too many of his critics from the left, learned from the failures of Bill Clinton’s strategy of developing a health care plan and then trying to get Congress to pass it by “going [...]

  30. […] this is true of conservative policy successes in general. Reagan didn’t make upper-class tax cuts more popular; he (and George W. Bush) were just smart enough to understand that since federal elections […]

  31. […] It’s possible, I suppose, that she could have tried and failed, but again I doubt it; she would know better than anyone that the “just shove it down Congress’s throat” strategy preferred by the […]

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