At the end of an excellent post about the missed opportunities on the economy that seem more likely than not at this point to cost Obama re-election, Noam Scheiber argues that the Obama administration needs to get a political win out of the inevitable failure to pass stimulus legislation:
Politically, on the other hand, it’s still worth flogging the AJA aggressively. As my former colleague Jonathan Chait has pointed out, the worst of all worlds for the administration is for Republicans to block additional stimulus without taking any blame for it. If you’re Obama, you have to get at least one victory there–either the stimulus itself, or an issue with which to bash the GOP. The administration finally grasped this last September, after two-and-half years of mostly giving the GOP a pass. But the focus on stimulus has largely given way in recent months to a combination of attacks on Romney’s private equity career along with efforts to tout the Obama record (which is not too shabby, I’d be the first to concede, middling recovery aside). If the only thing the administration does in response to these latest jobs numbers is revive it’s focus on the American Jobs Act, it would be a politically important turning point, though obviously you’d like to get the actual stimulus, too.
Well, I’m not saying that Obama shouldn’t do this — what does he have to lose? But the problem here is that while actually creating jobs is crucially important fighting to create jobs is worth pretty much nothing. Scheiber is right that the time to fight for more stimulus was in 2010, and in the very likely event that a decent stmulus package wouldn’t have beaten a filibuster he needed to do everything he could to get people who aren’t inflation crackpots on the Federal Reserve and to use already appropriated funds as creatively as possible. In itself, fighting for the AJA is worth about as much as a $6 umbrella in a hurricane.
On a related point, since it was held up in moderation while the relevant thread was still active, I should give Corey Robin a chance to make his point about Obama and the BULLY PULPIT more fully here:
I think the reality of what some people are saying re bully pulpits is more complicated than I suggested in my original tweet — which, in case it needs emphasizing, has a 140 character limit — and more complicated than Scott suggests in his post. It’s not simply the case that the folks who previously doubted the bully pulpit theory doubt in the case of Obama and his SSM marriage statement. Adam Serwer wrote a series of posts over the last couple of years, criticizing in no uncertain terms the bully pulpit theory; he now believes it has had an impact. I wouldn’t say it was hypocritical; he acknowledges, albeit only in passing, his former skepticism, but unlike Scott, who in his previous posts on this question, explained he potential discrepancies, Serwer doesn’t. Yes, he’s no Greenwald in terms of influence or reach, but neither is he a marginal figure.
Likewise, to his credit, Ezra Klein did attempt to grapple with the information about Obama and SSM — he had written that big anti-bully pulpit piece in the New Yorker — but I think he’s not fully accounting for the discrepancy. He says what happened in Maryland among African Americans is consistent with his theory that bully pulpiting polarizes along partisan lines. But the emphasis in his New Yorker piece is on the backlash (he says at one point taking a strong stand can make things worse). He acknowledges there’s no backlash here, but that’s it. Then he goes onto say he doesn’t want to overstate his position against presidential rhetoric, that presidents can set agendas (something he almost seemed to dismiss in the New Yorker piece) and so on.
Scott is definitely right that people conflate the bully pulpit question with the overall question of the power of the presidency (and the various sources of that power), but I don’t think it’s only one side that does that conflating. And, to bring us back to where we began, I don’t think it’s completely true that everyone who said x before is still saying, simply, x now. Which was the implicit challenge of my tweet.
I would respond by saying I stand by my initial claim. I don’t think there’s any contradiction between Ezra’s New Yorker article and his post on Obama and SSM at all. The former doesn’t say that backlashes are inevitable, merely possible; and the fact that Obama’s position-taking has increased the popularity of his position among supporters without affecting public opinion as a whole is precisely consistent with the theory he lays out. I suppose you could say that Adam should have been more explicit in why Obama’s position-taking could matter in that particular context, but since his argument wasn’t wrong it’s a pretty trivial point.
More broadly, I find the pre-emptive hypocrisy accusation mode of argument wearying — particularly in this context, in which making utterly banal political science points about presidential power is likely to get one branded a reflexive Obama apologist by numerous critics. If Corey thinks that people are underestimating the power of the presidency, he should make the case, and if there isn’t a case to be made people’s motivations are irrelevant. And, again, the key point here is that proponents of the bully pulpit theory made assumptions about presidential power that were not, in fact, corroborated by the data. Whoever is supposed to be self-flagellating here, I don’t think it’s bully pulpit skeptics who should be first in line.