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Presidential Power Addenda

[ 64 ] June 3, 2012 |

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.

Comments (64)

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  1. Scott P. says:

    In fact, support for SSM among Republicans has declined since Obama’s statement. So you can say there has been a backlash.

  2. DrDick says:

    There is this, however.

    Just to be clear, I am not a supporter of the full bully pulpit argument, though I think it can have an effect, in conjunction with other factors. This really ties into something you posted earlier (I think) about the importance of repetition, diversity of sources, and the authority/prestige of the speakers, etc. in moving public opinion.

    I am not arguing that the president created this effect all by himself, or that he is even the most important factor, merely that his speaking out was a significant factor. Your argument, in contrast, seems to be that nothing the president says has any effect ever and that would appear to be problematic.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      But, as I say in the linked post above, this is just a demonstration that when presidents take position this tends to make the positions more popular among supporters and less popular among opponents. That isn’t what most people mean by the bully pulpit.

      • Murc says:

        You may want to start qualifying this with the statement that Presidential rhetoric, which is usually pretty high-profile and gets a lot of play, can cause short-term partisan re-apportionments of public opinion.

        It’s been demonstrated pretty conclusively I think that if one political label takes a strong stance on a position, all other things being equal, people who have an affinity to that label will increase their support for it, while those who oppose that label will decrease in it.

      • DrDick says:

        Then why do I keep being accused of supporting the “Bully Pulpit” since a somewhat stronger version of that, which includes marginal effects on the undecided, is the only position I have taken?

        • rea says:

          The “bully pulpit” argument in its most obnoxious and least accurate form is, “Gosh, if only Obama had toured the country making speaches in favor of X, he could have gotten X through Congress! And his failure to do so show he never really wanted X!”

          But it would be silly to say that nothing the president of the United States does can influence public opinion–that’s little different than saying that advertising can’t influence public opinion.

          The president’s ability to infuence opinion works best over the long run, and isn’t very effective in getting a pecific piece of legislation through a hostile congress

    • UserGoogol says:

      It’s debatable whether there really is that.

      Looking at subsamples of surveys is inherently less reliable than the overall survey because smaller samples are less accurate. Since black people are a minority, that subsample can be quite a bit smaller. So what you see is that there’s a lot of extra random noise in the polling of black people. As such, trying to parse trends out of a few poll results becomes even less reliable.

  3. Vance Maverick says:

    I for one would appreciate a clear statement of your position, Scott. I realize a single blog post isn’t the right form; on the other hand, if the NYer found room for Klein’s piece, I have no doubt that you could find a home for your full Fifty Shades of Bully Pulpit.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      My position is that presidential rhetoric has no demonstrable ability to shift public opinion in favor of the president’s position (with the arguable exception of military attacks.) If you want the full version, I’d recommend On Deaf Ears.

  4. Linnaeus says:

    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

    You really think so? I mean, sure, the numbers aren’t good, but it seems a bit early to make this prediction.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Unless the latest labor numbers are an outlier, yes I think Obama is in pretty serious trouble.

      • Davis X. Machina says:

        The problem is, people go to the polls. And as we saw in the UK, the voters are perfectly capable of saying “There’s a crisis, your response has been inadequate, so we’re going to elect people who have promised, up front, to do things guaranteed to make it worse, for they have done precisely in the past.”

        People in the aggregate are pretty damn dumb.

      • Linnaeus says:

        In trouble? Okay, I can buy that; I’m trying not to be too Pollyanna-ish here. At the same time, I’d like think that the Obama campaign is capable of linking the economic woes we’ve had to disastrous Republican policies and pointing that, missteps aside, things didn’t get remotely better until he and the Democrats tried to do something about it. The Republicans have shown no real desire to govern at all. Their top priority, articulated so directly by Mitch McConnell, is to get rid of the president and they don’t care what they burn down to do it. Maybe I’m naive, but it’s hard to believe that enough Americans want that kind of government when memories of the last disaster are still so salient.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          The public still blames George Bush more than Barack Obama for the state of the economy by about 20 points. Needless to say, this is very unusual for a President seeking reelection with unemployment higher than it was when he was elected.

        • chris says:

          At the same time, I’d like think that the Obama campaign is capable of linking the economic woes we’ve had to disastrous Republican policies

          As the saying goes, that will give him the votes of every thinking person, but he needs a majority.

        • Cody says:

          I feel like I would just replay clips of Mitch McConnell saying that over and over. Just subtitle it “What Republicans stand for”.

          Then again, maybe that will just cause more people to vote for Romney.

  5. Murc says:

    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

    Isn’t that MORE likely to fail than a stimulus, in fact?

    The Senate loves them some inflation crackpottery. Getting people who think a few years at 4 percent is just what we need seems like it would be an even huger political lift than even a modest stimulus.

    I mean, of course Obama should have tried. I just think he’d have failed miserably. His attentions were probably better focused on thins the Executive Branch has direct control over.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Definitely possible. Even in the modern context, though, it’s easier to get appointments approved than legislation passed.

      • Murc says:

        Is that the case? My impression has been that for anyone not in the Cabinet or on the Supreme Court, appointments are actually harder to pass than legislation in many cases. Even crazy tea-partiers still kind of want at least some laws passed, and there have been a number of very quiet backdoor bargains made where stuff gets passed as long as nobody talks about it.

        But judges, fed members, that kind of thing? They just get stopped en masse because there’s a raging ideological fire to not allow Democrats to staff the government.

  6. joe from Lowell says:

    It was, in effect, a bet that you could get away with spending much less than necessary by manipulating mass psychology. And for a while it worked: The economy grew pretty rapidly in late 2009 and early 2010….The same psychological forces that worked in our favor in late 2009 and early 2010 may soon start working against us.

    Chait’s theory seems to be that people were more upbeat about the economy in 2009-2010 than they are in 2012. That just isn’t so. Consumer confidence has been higher throughout 2012 than it was in 2009-2010 – for the vast majority of the time, much higher. Whatever is happening in the economy, positing its cause as “mass psychology” doesn’t make sense.

  7. DocAmazing says:

    Question: is there money in the DOT’s budget that can be used at the discretion of the Sec’y of Transportation? Might be a back door to “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. Other departments might have similar usable money that would stimulate employment in the short term. Just a thought.

    • Hogan says:

      Given the pork barrel value of transportation projects, I imagine those funds are pretty thoroughly appropriated before they get from Congress to DOT. That might not be the case if we had a sane method for allocating funds to infrastructure projects, but alas, we’re Americans.

  8. James E Powell says:

    While it appears that presidential rhetoric does not change public opinion on a particular issue, three questions (and maybe more) come to mind.

    First, is there any affect on public opinion of presidential rhetoric is joined with action?

    Second, how is public opinion affected when presidential rhetoric is repeated by others?

    Third, and I think what might be more important, how does presidential rhetoric affect the public’s opinion of the president as a person, i.e., trustworthiness, competence, “understands people like me,” and other qualities that have more impact on voters’ decision making than particular policy choices.

    • Rob says:

      The important thing is that the president decides which issues are discussed.

      • James E Powell says:

        I am not so sure I agree. The president can put an issue out there, but if the public, and more importantly the Village, don’t want to talk about it, they won’t.

      • FlipYrWhig says:

        I can’t tell you how many times it has happened that some commenter somewhere has said that What Obama Needs To Do is something that he already did, or What Obama Needs To Say is something he already said many times.

  9. Rob says:

    By 2010 there was no filibuster for a stimulus. Its spending, it could pass by majority vote through reconciliation. It didn’t happen because they thought enough was done. And that was before the Orszag supported pay freeze at the end of 2010.

  10. FlipYrWhig says:

    There is a huge chunk of elected Democrats who are themselves spending-averse and susceptible to arguments about retrenchment and austerity and cutting taxes instead. I don’t know why the prevailing view of the blogosphere is that The Democrats already agree on stuff and happily sign on to Keynesian and liberal priorities with, at worst, a modicum of coaxing. It has happened _many times_ under Obama, and had happened many times under Clinton, that Democrats in the House and Senate balked at the president’s priorities, pouted and whined, and otherwise acted as though their own political fortunes were opposed to those of the president, not identical to them. There never has been a majority sentiment strongly in favor of dramatic action on jolting the economy with public spending, and it doesn’t matter how convincing that call to action seems to us.

    • LosGatosCA says:

      It can’t be said enough that FDR had 70 senators – of 96 and LBJ had 68. FDR had 300+ in the house, LBJ about 295 or so. And they both had external momentum, a bias for action – FDR inherited a disaster and LBJ had the goodwill from JFK’s assassination

      Obama has had an opposition much stronger and better prepared to do sabotage from day one.

      Nonetheless, he’s considerably less skilled than the situation called for. My guess is that Clinton would have done nothing differently because Obama is a creature of the establishment and this is what the Democratic Party is today.

    • James E Powell says:

      Also too, forty years or more of right-wing political propaganda means that when a president says “spending” a very large group of Americans hear “give money to the [insert racist epithet here] and immigrants!” The fact that the current president himself is a [insert racist epithet here], only makes it more difficult for Americans to understand that “spending” can and often does consist of issuing paychecks.

      • Steve LaBonne says:

        The oldest dodge in American politics, and the one that has never ceased to work since the slave owners invented it to keep poor whites on their side. One despair of human nature.

        • Lee says:

          Conservatives in all countries, even in ethnically homogeneous countries, have always been able to keep a sufficient amount of the poor and working class on their side. Its just that in the United States, conservatives use anti-Black racism. In Imperial Russia and other European countries, it was Jew-hatred. American conservatives aren’t particularly unique in this technique.

  11. LosGatosCA says:

    I don’t think there is any case to be made that the bully pulpit overcomes fundamentally wrong judgments about the basic nature of economic problems that lead to suboptimal priorities and inadequate reform proposals and economic results with the natural consequences of electoral losses like 2010 and quite possibly the loss of the presidency in 2012.

    Not pursuing financial reform, appointing Geithner and Summers, re-appointing Bernanke, making marginal incrementalism the centerpiece of his strategy when conditions called for more cannot be overcome by anything else. Obama hasn’t been so much weak, as just plain wrong.

    Maybe he wins in November, but it won’t be rhetoric or political astuteness, nor his economic judgment or management that does it.

    Just plain dumb demographic and weak opponent luck.

    In one sense a win in November for Obama will be a greater proof of equality in America than 2008. It will be a statement that you no longer have to be Jackie Robinson to break the color line, you can be a mediocrity like Herm Edwards and still get re-hired.

    • FlipYrWhig says:

      IMHO you’re still discounting the tenacity of “fundamentally wrong judgments” among the politicians Obama needs to woo in the first place in order to pursue something beyond “incrementalism.”. IOW even the most perfectly conceived call for dramatic action is still likely to fall on the stone-deaf ears of Nelson, Landrieu, Bayh, Lincoln, Webb, Warner, Carper, Johnson, Conrad, Pryor, the other Nelson, Lieberman, McCaskill, Feinstein, et al.

      • FlipYrWhig says:

        Lord, forgot the worst of them all, Manchin. Even people like Casey, Bennet, and Coons are not particularly orthodox liberals. And Obama needs them for just about everything.

        • Steve LaBonne says:

          Even some of the ones one used to think of as upstanding liberals, like Durbin, have been pretty bad as often as not. The failures have been failures of the whole party, by no mans just of Obama.

          • James E Powell says:

            The larger failures, the intractable ones, are of the whole country, the people themselves.

            • Steve LaBonne says:

              I think that comes perilously close to blaming the victim.

              • James E Powell says:

                Victims have no choice; voters do.

              • LosGatosCA says:

                The wounds are indeed self-inflicted.

                It’s supposed to be the government of the people, by the people, for the people . . . and it is. Whether people vote at the booth or through their apathy they accept what other people decide for them, it’s their choices.

                The people are both the perps and the victims. With self-governance comes self-responsibility. I don’t know any other way it can work.

                The only time the people are the innocent victims are when their will is thwarted through law breaking. But folks voted Bush in cleanly in 2004, they elected Reagan freely twice, they re-elected Nixon after the Watergate break-in, etc.

                • chris says:

                  And even more importantly, elected the Congress of 2010. If the Democrats had gained another 20 House seats and 5 more Senate seats in 2010 (over what they had in 2008), you better believe we’d be seeing the differences right now.

                  The only reason I’m not comfortable with just saying “the people asked for this and they’re getting it” is the equivocation: the people who asked for this are generally NOT the ones getting it in the neck. Many of the victims are the disenfranchised and even children, while the Party of No’s base are (generally) quite comfortable.

                • Cody says:

                  On Presidential politics you can say people had a vote, but on a congressional level this might not be true. Gerrymandering has basically nullified the votes of many constituents lumping them into districts where they’re the minority.

                  See: Texas.

          • FlipYrWhig says:

            I think we’re better served thinking of the Democrats as something less than a “whole party.” As Davis X. Machina has pointed out repeatedly, we’re dealing with the Democrats who are Democrats and the Democrats who are Republicans. And expecting them to sing from the same hymnal is just going to be an exercise in aggravation.

      • LosGatosCA says:

        See
        LosGatosCA says:
        June 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm

        I think there’s a strong case that the permanent state of the political class is corrupt, incompetent, and pandering. And that the overwhelming majority of presidents fit within the normal distribution of the population they are drawn from.

        • James E Powell says:

          Yes, this. And that the while there may be a constituency available for change, in the abstract, no one is offering a program for specific changes to attract or build a constituency.

        • FlipYrWhig says:

          Another way to think about it, though, is that Obama was somewhat _outside_ of that “political class” when he made it to the national scene in the first place — which IMHO has left him particularly open to second-guessing by more seasoned hands more steeped in that culture. Some of the things that help candidates win the presidency paradoxically hinder them from dealing with the “political class.” And, to reiterate, we saw that with Clinton, and we’ve seen it with Obama: Democratic Senators who run for the hills when Democratic presidents want to accomplish something ambitious.

  12. Mke200 says:

    I agree with Scott that the bully pulpit theory is largely spurious. I have one suggestion on where presidential rhetoric may matter. Unlike the standard Billy pulpit argument, however, I do not believe such rhetoric can meaningfully change public opinion. I do believe it may have some impact however on the enthusiasm level and overall morale of the relatively tiny fraction of the public that is deeply absorbed with following political events and whom already support the president and his agenda. This group of people likely makes up less than 2% of the voting population but probably disproportionately includes those most likely to contribute money and time to the reelection of the President and his fellow Democrats in congress. This is just a hunch but if it is correct it suggests that it may not be irrational for the president and his advisers to concern themselves with his rhetoric and public positions. The impact of his statements on the behavior of hyper engaged individuals probably isn’t all that substantial in terms of the success of hhs fundraising and elite level capital hill negotiations and influence. It may have some impact in these areas though.

  13. superking says:

    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.

    This is all rather naive, isn’t it? Ezra is encouraging some backroom deals with Republicans in order to get new stimulus passed. Meanwhile Republicans are campaigning against government spending, claiming the ARA failed, arguing for austerity, and publicly stating that they want nothing more than for Obama to be defeated in November. Without Congress, there is literally nothing Obama can do to ACTUALLY CREATE JOBS!!!! Isn’t he then better off drawing the contrast between himself and the Republicans? Isn’t appearing to fight better than choosing to not fight AND to get nothing for it?

    It seems to me that, at some point, Scott’s argument comes to claim that politicians, especially the President, or perhaps this President, shouldn’t make any public arguments about policy. Instead, the President should simply sit in his office and figure ways to outmanoeuvre political opponents. This requires concluding that the electorate is a single mass that never really changes its opinions on big issues, which in turn cedes ground to people who actually do make public arguments. I don’t know how you campaign with this assumption.

    It seems to me that this is some distinction between making policy and making policy possible. If you’re in a position where policy is impossible, e.g. due to an obstinate opposition party that simply will not help under any circumstances, then you have to do something to make making policy possible.

    I don’t know, may be we should just assume it’s a “center-right country” that doesn’t want “big government” and is always needing “tax relief.” If you’re in favor of more liberal outcomes, how do you make more liberal outcomes possible?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I’m not sure why you assume that if presidential rhetoric can’t change public opinion that public opinion won’t ever change. But, anyway, the bigger problem is that national public opinion isn’t the primary barrier to reform legislation.

      • superking says:

        I don’t think I’ve made that assumption, Scott. There is a broader debate in the Democratic party between those who think we need to do more to shape the electorate to make it favorable to Democratic candidates and those who think that the electorate is static and we just have to deal with it. “Progressives” tend believe the former while older Democrats, particularly of the Clinton era, tend to believe the latter. I think we need to do a better job of engaging the electorate, but it does seem that you’re falling on the other side.

        I agree with you that national public opinion isn’t a barrier to reform legislation. But it is a barrier to electing Democrats–all politics is not local. And electing Republicans is a barrier to reform legislation. So, here’s the question: Should politicians try to shape public opinion in order to affect electoral outcomes? Or should they cede that ground to cultural elites and random or unforeseen future events?

        I don’t see how your position avoids turning into a public retreat for liberal politicians.

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