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More on Obama and SSM


As John Sides notes, while there is as of yet essentially no evidence of a net national shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage since Obama came out in favor of it, there is at least some evidence tentatively suggesting that Obama’s announcement has increased support for SSM among African-Americans. I endorse John’s bottom line:

Because Obama is still very popular among African-Americans and because his shift on same-sex marriage was publicized widely, some blacks could plausibly take a cue from him and change their positions. Maybe, as Jon suggests, many of them didn’t actually have strong opinions to begin with. But Obama could still have been the catalyst for their own shifts in opinion.

Two caveats, however. First, it would be nice to have more polls to back this up. Second, Obama’s potential leadership in this case doesn’t suggest presidents have broad persuasive powers. If Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage did shift the views of some African-Americans, that is still a shift among only a minority of a minority of voters in, as far as we know, a single state.

To the last point, I would add that — assuming arguendo that Obama’s position-taking has in fact increased support among African-Americans — this represents a fairly unusual political situation, in which 1)a stalwart part of the Democratic base 2)among which Obama is particularly popular has 3)a position that is in tension with much of the rest of the rest of the Democratic coalition 4)on a relatively low-priority issue for most voters 5)on which public opinion has been trending positively (including among African-Americans) anyway.   It’s not like this kind of dramatic shift can be replicated in all that many other cases.

Second, I would note that one effect of position-taking by prominent public officials is that it tends to sort public opinion among partisan lines. Health care reform became more popular among Democrats but less popular among Republicans as the debate continued, for example. I would not expect same-sex marriage to become significantly more popular overall in the short term, but I would expect it to become more popular among Democrats (and relatively less popular among Republicans). This would certainly be consistent with increased support among African-Americans, suggesting that the limited data isn’t just a mirage. While this effect of presidential position-taking is real, however, the political utility of these effects in most cases is very limited (although as Adam says for this particular case in blue states with relatively large African-American populations holding referenda on SSM it might well matter.)  If the president could transform public opinion by making his positions substantially more popular among the public as a whole (rather than making public opinion on individual issues bear a greater resemblance 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 rule.

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  • pete

    there a few more issues that that match at least a majority of those caveats wonder if Obama will use the bully pulpit on those

    • LosGatosCA

      If liberals think the bully pulpit doesn’t work, then they won’t use it to even defend the status quo against attacks from other bully pulpits (like the Pope/minions on contraception) or raise long term consciousness (like Reagan on convincing Reagan Democrats to surrender in the class war that has brought us the new gilded age).

      Even Bush II’s full frontal assault on privatizing social security which expended the final political capital he had can be considered a pretty fabulous success if in 2012/13 there is a ‘grand bargain’ that makes a significant portion of the Bush tax cuts permanent, cuts Social Security, and has any element of a ‘defined contribution’ plan incorporated in it less than a five years after he left office. Not saying it will happen, but it’s not inconceivable that it might.

      Losing the immediate battle but contributing to winning the long term war can be a very successful use of the bully pulpit.

      • LosGatosCA

        Shaping the opinions of what the elites think is salable to the suckers is just as good a use of the bully pulpit as any large scale movement in public opinion.

        • Homunq

          Very true… but remember, “as good as” != “universally more feasible than”.

      • Scott Lemieux

        If Bush and Social Security counts as a success, I don’t know what could ever constitute a failure.

        • steelpenny

          I don’t know. In 2005, dismantling Social Security is crazy talk. By 2010, it’s mainstream “serious” Democratic conventional wisdom. It might not work in the short term, but the constant drumbeat over time maybe does.

          • R Johnston

            Absolutely. Getting the public and the media to fully buy into the ridiculous, antiempirical, reality rejecting notion that there’s a crisis in Social Security that demands significant changes now–a notion that on top of being ridiculous is strongly contrary to the interests of the vast majority of the people who have been convinced to buy into it–is a tremendous propaganda success, right up there with “activist judges” and “states’ rights.”

            When the wackadoodle conservatives think long and the self-loathing liberals don’t think that anything that has no effect today can ever matter, liberals, self-loathing and otherwise, lose every time.

            • John

              That the media and many elements of the public bought into the notion that there was a social security crisis that demanded immediate remedies was a prerequisite of Bush’s plan, not its result.

              • gmack

                Well, sure, but this is a chicken-and-egg relation, no? The privatization proposal also reinforces the perception of an entitlement crisis, etc.

                Anyway, let me begin with a caveat: I care not one bit about these arguments over the bully pulpit, one way or the other. So take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt.

                However, I do think that R Johnston and others have a point about the Social Security debate. In particular, I suspect that privatizing Social Security isn’t much more popular among the the general public, but the constant crowing about debt and governmental insolvency resulting from bloated entitlement programs has had an effect: first, it has had an effect among elites, convincing many of them that the responsible centrist thing to do is to figure out a way to cut entitlement spending; second, it may have neutralized public opposition. Public opinion does seem really concerned about debt and entitlement spending, which translates into effective indifference to “Grand Bargains,” as we are now calling them. Now, I’m willing to grant that this isn’t the result of the bully pulpit. Public opinion isn’t more concerned about the debt (and thus potentially open to elite cost-cutting deals) because Bush gave some speeches back in 2005. Still, the more or less constant hammering of these themes, of which Bush’s speeches were a part, may have an effect.

                At the very least, something needs to be explained here: we seem to have much more movement toward entitlement cutting. Granted, this is in part a result of the economic downturn, but once again, we need to know why people respond to this downturn with an interest in austerity, whereas in earlier periods there was much more elite and public support for things like the New Deal. The bully pulpit, if by that we mean presidential speeches, does not explain it, of course, but I do think it might function as a shorthand for the broader discourses that construct our perceptions of social problems and solutions.

                • Hogan

                  it has had an effect among elites, convincing many of them that the responsible centrist thing to do is to figure out a way to cut entitlement spending;

                  I believe that’s been a tenet of responsible centrist thinking since the ’70s.

                • chris

                  I believe that’s been a tenet of responsible centrist thinking since the ’70s.

                  I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually predated the existence of entitlements. There’s just something so truthy about the idea that Those People and their unearned charity are what’s really wrong with the country, regardless of what’s really wrong with the country, even people who consider themselves on the left can’t resist it half the time.

          • njorl

            Prior to 2005, it was common knowledge (though wrong) that Social Security was doomed. That no one entering the workforce after 1990 would get a penny from it.

            The reason there is more buzz about killing Social Security now is that it is more worthwhile to kill it now. Killing it before 2010 would have been a waste for the rich. Social Security was bringing in more than it spent. The middle class were paying extra taxes so the rich could pay less.

            Bush’s hamfisted maneuver didn’t help the Social Security killers at all. They are pushing killing it off now because now is when they always planned for it to die.

            • joe from Lowell

              Prior to 2005, it was common knowledge (though wrong) that Social Security was doomed.

              Social Security
              Has run out on you and me!

              – Circle Jerks, “When the Shit Hits the Fan” 1983

          • rea

            The Bush proposal wasn’t to dismantle social security directly so much as it was to privatize it in a way that got Wall Street a whole bunch of commissions. That would have ended social security, of course, but not so much because the Bushies were trying to kill it, as because their plan wouldn’t work.

            Nowdays, the Rs have switched from being incompetent big spenders to being mean-spirited budget slashers, and accordingly, their present focus is not so much on looting social security for the benefit of their friends, and more on making sure that none of the wrong people are getting anything from the government.

          • By 2010, it’s mainstream “serious” Democratic conventional wisdom. It might not work in the short term, but the constant drumbeat over time maybe does.

            The problem is, this is complete nonsense. Obama is well to the left of Clinton on Social Security (the latter was sympathetic to privatization.) Social Security is pretty much the only issue on which Ryan is to Bush’s left. Social Security privitziation has many, many fewer public supporters than it used to.

            • LosGatosCA

              ‘well to the left’ – you’ll have to provide data to support that. At best the jury is still out as to where Obama stands.

              Of course, we’ll know when the ‘grand bargain’ materializes. I’ll withhold any judgment on my part until then. In the meantime, they look pretty much the same to me, except that the danger with Clinton has passed while the damage with Obama is yet to be realized.

        • joe from Lowell

          Well, Scott, if you’re willing to pretend that “dismantling Social Social” became “mainstream “serious” Democratic conventional wisdom” by 2010, then attributing this imaginary shift to Bush’s 2005 rhetoric is easy.

          • mark f

            Well if Obama loves Social Security so much why doesn’t he just make a bazillion dollar coin and deposit into the trust fund? Then he can order some pants and call it a day.

            • joe from Lowell

              I’ve heard that before. That’s so awesome.

              The clerk on the other end has no idea what to say.

          • steelpenny

            From some fringe blog called the Hill:

            Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Sperling’s deputy, Jason Furman — leading figures in the president’s economic team — are pressing Obama to cut Social Security benefits if necessary, say sources familiar with their positions.

            Yeah, those guys aren’t mainstream, serious, or Democratic. What color is the sky in your world joe? It’s blue here.

            • Is that resembled BUsh’s plan in the slightest you’d have something, but you don’t.

              • steelpenny

                If years of messaging don’t result in the exact thing called for, then the messaging had no influence. Fair enough.

                Just out of curiosity, what is your explanation of changes in public opinion? You have consistently argued that political figures have virtually no influence (outside foreign policy and perhaps some other exceptions). What about other public figures? If yes, what is distinction between them and politicians? If no, just what mechanism(s) do you see as responsible for changes in public opinion?

                • Scott Lemieux

                  If a messaging campaign results in no increase in public support and substantially less elite support for a policy proposal, I do in fact think it’s ridiculous to say that it succeeded (and certainly your assertions are as tautological as any Oliver STone conspiracy theory.) I don’t favor reducing COL increases in Social Security, but to pretend that this is pretty much what Bush wanted is really silly; it’s not even the same message.

                • joe from Lowell

                  the exact thing called for

                  Let’s get this straight: you just pretended that the Treasury Secretary urging the President “to cut Social Security benefits if necessary” is the same thing as the dismantling of Social Security being mainstream Democratic policy.

                  And you’re asking me about the color of the sky?

                  You keep moving those goal posts, champ. It seems to be all you’re good at.

        • Losgatosca

          Time will tell if Bush failed in his reckless Social Security proposals or if he was just a fool ahead of his time on proposing a defined contribution architecture for Social Security.

          Conservatives love to tell the tale of purification that Goldwaters electoral debacle provided for them.

          Plenty of historical examples of pioneers in many fields being ignored, criticized, even crucified and then later being considered highly influential.

          • It should be noted here that the Republicans took over only after they had abandoned essentially all of Goldwater’s platform.

      • david mizner

        Well, at the moment the White House is dedicating quite of bit of energy to counter the GOP lie that Obama is a big spender — in other words, contesting the claim that Obama responded correctly to the depression, reinforcing the idea that austerity is the answer. Debunking one lie while perpetuating another, larger one.

        It makes some sense, what they’re doing, debt-deficits are a big (but overrated) issue, but it’s a big issue partly because Democrats have accepted rather than challenged the GOP frame.

        • Sharon


        • Well, at the moment the White House is dedicating quite of bit of energy to counter the GOP lie that Obama is a big spender — in other words, contesting the claim that Obama responded correctly to the depression, reinforcing the idea that austerity is the answer.

          FDR and LBJ also liked to talk fiscal discipline. What effect did this have exactly?

          • mark f

            Look where we are now!!! Another Bully Pulpit success!!!

        • chris

          but it’s a big issue partly because Democrats have accepted rather than challenged the GOP frame.

          Yes, if they only bashed their heads into that concrete wall *harder*, the wall would surely have fallen right over with no adverse consequences whatsoever. Why don’t they have the courage to take such a simple step?

      • DrDick

        I think it can help shape the nature of political discourse and the acceptable options. Reagan helped shift the conversation on taxes well to the right and implant the idea that we are grossly overtaxed and that government is the problem and not the solution, something that you never heard in the 1960s when taxes were actually higher. This does not happen in a vacuum and the bully pulpit alone does not drive these events, but I think it has an effect.

      • joe from Lowell

        Even Bush II’s full frontal assault on privatizing social security which expended the final political capital he had can be considered a pretty fabulous success if in 2012/13 there is a ‘grand bargain’ that makes a significant portion of the Bush tax cuts permanent, cuts Social Security, and has any element of a ‘defined contribution’ plan incorporated in it less than a five years after he left office.

        Bush’s Social Security Privatization PR effort was built around the message that Social Security needed to be changed in order to save it, and that investing SS contributions in the stock market will provide more benefits than pay-as-you-go Social Security.

        If there is a “grand bargain” struck this year or next that involves spending less on Social Security, it will be based upon a desire to reduce the long-term federal deficit – an argument that played no role whatsoever in Bush’s BULLY PULPITing in favor of Social Security privatization, just as the arguments Bush made for his scheme have nothing to do with the recent push to reduce entitlement spending.

        • Losgatosca

          I think you skipped the ‘defined contribution’ portion of my comment.

        • brautigan

          Do you really think public perceptions coalesce around this level of nuance???

          • joe from Lowell

            I think the claim that rhetoric moved public opinion has to be supported by evidence that shows the public moving towards the rhetoric, not towards some other policy or policy that has nothing to do with the rhetoric.

            I think that the difference between “We can fix Social Security so it works better” and “We need to cut Social Security to reduce the deficit” goes far beyond nuance.

            I think these two observations are rather obvious.

  • sven

    I agree that the bully pulpit has little ability to sway public opinion, with one caveat. Most polling is focused on issues which already have achieved a degree of public prominence. If a politician could identify (relatively) unknown issues, on which the public has extremely weak preferences, there might be some advantage in setting the initial frame.

    A recent example might be the debate over insurance coverage and reproductive health. While the implications are the same, discussing “should employers be forced to pay for birth control” vs. “can employers dictate employees reproductive health care” likely poll very differently. Once the frame has been set, subsequent polling might show little effect but ignore a real impact in shaping public opinion.

    • Joe

      This is interesting.

      I am not convinced the bully pulpit has NO benefit. It can — as shown here — in some limited ways. Gays and lesbians in black families will be less unimpressed at how “small” the effect is than might some others.

      In close cases, small slivers matter. And, there are relatively unknown issues (blogs talk about them repeatedly) or those where the public don’t have that strong of an opinion. And, various groups (Nixon going to China moments) who Presidents have special connections to. If Bush, e.g., had a special message to evangelicals, the “bully pulpit” could have been important.

      • bradp

        I think the bully pulpit is fairly useless if all he’s doing is expressing his lukewarm opinion.

        It would be useful in elevating and framing issues in positive and sympathetic ways.

  • LosGatosCA

    OTOH, God has a pretty extraordinary virtual bully pulpit in the Bible and real bully pulpits in congregations all over the world. And still, 5000 years later, not killing, not stealing, and not coveting your neighbors wife or committing adultery (especially for E channel reality show participants or viewers) doesn’t have the universal appeal one hopes for.

    OTOOH, the Pope and his minions have pushed what the elites think is salable to the suckers pretty far to the right without even a majority of the lapsed, cafeteria, or misguided true believers within their own constituency supporting it.

  • david mizner

    Yeah, he seems able to nudge some African-Americans to the left; I doubt he can move them the other way. As far as I know, there hasn’t been an increase in support among African-Americans for, say, no-strings bank bailouts and killing people w/o due process.

    • John

      The US Government has been killing people without due process for almost 236 years now.

      • Malaclypse

        Let us be fair – the US government has only been doing this for 223 years.

      • david mizner

        So? Does that make it somehow acceptable?

        I’ve never understood this sort of “sophisticated” defense of Obama’s abuses. I don’t recall anyone defending Bush’s crimes by pointing out that the U.S. has always done bad shit.

        More to the point, maybe, President Obama is not merely killing people w/o due process, he’s claiming he has the legal authority to do so, and many “liberals” are agreeing with him.

        • joe from Lowell

          You’ve totally lost the thread. This was a discussion about Obama shifting public opinion.

          Sometimes, David, people talk about subject for reasons having nothing to do with what they think about “Obama’s abuses.”

          Not you, but other people. Perhaps that’s where you got confused.

        • John

          What I mean is, *War* is killing people without due process, and it’s one of the most basic functions of any government. We can all disagree about the extent to which drone strikes against alleged terrorists is a legitimate means of waging war, but the basic idea that the appropriate way to discuss those issues is the general unacceptability of the government “killing people without due process” is ridiculous. Do you know who else was killed by the government without due process? Several million Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.

          • Asteele

            Several million Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.


            1. Their is due process in war, you have to make a reasonable attempt to identify targets as being belligerents, and the war has to be authorized by the legislature, this isn’t much, but it isn’t nothing.

            2. The idea that you can’t be opposed to extra-judicial killings and imprisonment, because your not also opposed to all war is basically saying: until the problem of war is solved, you can forget about human rights.

    • This sounds like an empirical claim that could be backed up by data! Do you have any data saying African American views on foreign policy and civil liberties have remained as left wing under Obama as under Bush? All the anecdotal evidence at my disposal is the opposite.

  • Rarely Posts

    I suspect that the shift in opinion of African Americans (and Democrats) is likely to hold up for the reasons that you identified, as well as a number of aspects of this particular issue, such as: nuances in the general opinion of African Americans’ (and Democrats’) towards gay rights and the reality that African American political leaders have generally been ahead of their African American constituents on gay rights.*

    If so, Obama’s shift could have powerful relevance in referenda in states like Maryland, etc. It’s notable that it is unlikely to have significant effects in election of public officials, because it’s a low salience issue among most African Americans and indeed, African Americans generally voted for politicians that supported gay rights (for example, D.C.’s majority black government passed a bill for marriage equality even though a majority of the D.C. black population may not support it). It may have a substantial effect on those African American politicians who had not yet adopted a gay-rights position, as reflected in part by the NAACP’s shift of position.

    All of this brings me to my major point: Your writing on the myth of the bully pulpit has been really elucidating and valuable, but I would recommend that you not adopt the extreme position that the bully pulpit has no effect. Quite simply, it’s unlikely to be true in some specific circumstances, and it would be unfortunate if you left yourself exposed to easy attacks when a slightly more tempered position would make it harder to attack.

    * Of course, it is always problematic to talk about a large group’s attitudes towards a political issue and particularly a racial group. So, all of this discussion should be qualified in that it’s limited to a general observation about the effect of the African American population in general as a powerful voting block that reflects a relatively polarized political position in American voting (as evidenced by tons of research and Voting Rights litigation). There’s obviously widespread opinions within the group, and a person’s race is not a good way to assess the individual’s attitude towards particular political issues.

  • Homunq

    To me the most convincing version of the “Obama should use the bully pulpit more” argument works along partisan lines just as you say. That is: by articulating a progressive (Keynesian) economic vision and cutting out the deficit talk, he’d increase support for those views in the Democratic party, while increasing opposition in the Republican party. Since Republicans are already maximally intransigent, but deficit concern trolling from inside the Democratic party is a real problem, that is a net good. Even if it wouldn’t magically give him the power to pass a sweeping New New Deal, and deadlock basically continued, it would make democracy more of a meaningful choice between two clear alternatives. Some things might go a little better in blue states, and… well, in the end, believing in democracy takes a bit of unjustified optimism about the long-run wisdom of the people.

    • John

      The problem is that we shouldn’t view people like Ben Nelson as members of the Democratic Party who can be influenced this way. The professional centrist wing of the party responds to statements from presidents essentially as though they are Republicans – use of the bully pulpit by a Democratic president gets their back up to resist, while its use by a Republican president primes them to surrender.

      It is, in my view, complete idiocy on their part (helping presidents of their own party to fail and presidents of the opposite party to succeed hurts their own chances at re-election), but it nonetheless seems to be how things work.

  • Jack

    Interesting post. I’d also add that the close cousin of the bully pulpit arguments is the “I wish he’d fight for progressive causes even if he loses” line. Certainly nobody believes that Obama making this announcement a few months earlier would have led to a different end result in North Carolina. So you’re basically left arguing that speechifying can work on a incredibly small subset of the electorate on an issue that is pretty close to sui generis.

    • Jack

      Your 1/2/3 points are also interesting to consider. It seems obvious to me that the relationship between Obama and black voters is almost without analog in American politics, and that he can indeed have incredibly significant signaling or affirmation powers with them. And obviously votes are votes, so swings are important regardless (although black voters aren’t going to be swinging elections anytime soon).

      But black voters are rarely ever the hurdle for other progressive issues. I’m fairly sure Obama could’ve easily gotten huge majorities of support for single payer among black voters if he tried. Still wouldn’t have come close to happening.

      • Joe

        He has a close connection to a group that is for obvious reasons loyal to him and his party. There are other examples, such as evangelicals largely loyal to Republicans and particularly loyal to certain pols.

        Black voters have a conservative component that is hidden because Republicans are so bad for their interests. An issue like this has social effects that go beyond politics, however.

  • One thing you miss is that SSM is not just a goal in itself, but also an important indicator of reducing stigma for gays and lesbians. The fact is that a lot of the dispute is over the word “marriage” — that’s the hangup of people willing to agree to civil unions with the same legal incidents as marriage (which I understand to have been Obama’s previous position).

    If Obama moves opinion in the African American community, this makes a big difference for gays and lesbians in that community. Indeed, even if lots of socially conservative blacks continue to oppose SSM, they are less likely to demonize it when Obama is on record supporting it. And that creates some of the good kind of cognitive dissonance that makes a real difference to people’s lives. Especially on cultural issues, it is not all about the public policy. It’s also about the culture.

  • R Johnston

    I’m beginning to think that Lemieux simply has no understanding of why Xeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise is not a paradox at all. The fact that any individual speech, grain of sand, or instant of motion is of no noticeable effect doesn’t mean that the constant drumbeat over time doesn’t inevitably cause shifts in opinion, erosion of beaches, or movement through space.

    Scott, do you understand the bullshittery of Xeno’s paradox?

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