Home / General / Well, Bush <i>Did</i> Move the Overton Window

Well, Bush Did Move the Overton Window



Obama’s leftward turn on Social Security is an excellent illustration of how political change actually happens:

In a speech this week in Indiana, President Barack Obama announced a major shift in his position on Social Security. “It’s time we finally made Social Security more generous and increased its benefits,” Obama declared, “so today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they have earned.”

This is a welcome change from Obama’s past support for a so-called Grand Bargain that likely would have included cuts to Social Security benefits. It is tempting to view it as evidence of how Obama “really” thinks about the issue, in the same way that his support for gay marriage, after years of opposing it, was seen as a reflection of his real views. But the shift on Social Security isn’t about Obama per se. Rather, it’s an excellent example of how political pressure from below can facilitate change. It also demonstrates the limitations of a president’s ability to impose his vision on the country.


One variant of the Overton Window combines the idea with a belief in the power of the presidential bully pulpit. When presidents push for major policy changes, the theory goes, they win even if they lose in the short term. George W. Bush’s big push to privatize Social Security in his second term might have crashed and burned—but by moving the political center of gravity it made some kind of privatization, or at least big Social Security cuts, more palatable.

But, in fact, Bush’s big push was, from a liberal perspective, the best thing to ever happen to the program. If anything, Bush’s failed initiative moved the political center of gravity on the issue to the left, making major cuts to Social Security benefits politically toxic.

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  • Linnaeus

    The fact that supporters in Congress of privatizing Social Security wouldn’t actually call it that was telling.

    • tsam

      Ruining shit meets the technical definition of reform, right?

  • Arla

    Relatedly, I thought this piece did a good job showing what happened when conservatives refused to take half-a-loaf. Holding out just screwed them. (Hooray!)

    • postmodulator

      Imagine how much more damage they could have done in our lifetimes if they weren’t mostly pretty dumb.

  • Until 2014, Obama’s budget proposals included an offer to reduce the growth of Social Security benefits by changing how the cost-of-living increase is calculated, in exchange for a deal including upper-class tax cuts.

    Shouldn’t that be “upper-class tax increases“?

    • Scott Lemieux

      Of course – will correct!

  • Rob in CT

    I agree, but I also think the financial panic of late ’08/early ’09 helped put some nails in the coffin of the SS privatization idea.

    • alex284

      Also, boomers hitting retirement age and being the first generation to get there with mostly DC retirement plans instead of DB plans.

  • AMK

    How Obama “really” thinks about the issue

    I think if he actually could get a real Grand Bargain with a parallel-universe sane GOP, he would take it; SS trimming or higher retirement age in exchange for, say, meaningfully higher capital gains taxes and minimum wage. Like a lot of his other late-game plays, this is more an acknowledgment from Obama that the GOP in this universe is in fact insane and incapable of bargaining after all (and of course, it bolsters his progressive cred on the issue ahead of a Hillary endorsement).

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      It strongly suggests she will campaign on this. Which, if true, would put Trump over a barrel*: whatever he may feel, his party hatehatehates SS (Ponzi scheme!) and also can nevereverever raise taxes (job killer!). What else can Trump do – propose private accounts? Announce a Nixonesque “secret plan” to save SS that he can’t talk about?

      * Funny how Obama’s opponents keep ending up in that position.

      • efgoldman

        Announce a Nixonesque “secret plan” to save SS that he can’t talk about?

        Our seniors will get the the greatest cat food! It will come in yooge cans.

      • AMK

        It would put a more traditional GOP candidate over a barrel, but Trump has already jettisoned the usual fiscal conservative talking points—and has, if anything, been rewarded for it at the polls. He would absolutely promise to match or exceed anything Hillary says on Social Security. Would there be actual detailed “plans”? No, but that hasn’t hurt him yet either. Whatever he says would be more than enough to reassure the GOP-leaning seniors who like them some George Wallace-style Jim Crow welfare state.

  • Pseudonym

    FYI, the links at the bottom of the article are broken and pointing to Blogspot, respectively.

  • Yankee

    With less than a year in office there’s a limit to what new stuff he can accomplish himself, but now that it’s reasonably clear that HRC will be his successor he can at least afford to be less defensive.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Or that Trump will be his successor and what the hell, he might as well say what he thinks before the century of darkness and blood descends. He’ll look good in the history books written by the civilization built on the bones of our own.

  • AlanInSF

    In fairness to the Overton Window industry, the window is more easily moved when a leader articulates a previously off-limits position that’s actually popular with the electorate, as opposed to the opposite. And hasn’t Obama now made it easier for moderate Dems to take a position that within recent memory was articulated only by extreme leftist crazies like Atrios?

    In any case, good on Obama.

    • Steve LaBonne

      I think it really is a pretty BFD to have POTUS sounding like Atrios. (And trying to figure out what’s in a politician’s innermost heart is a mug’s game.)

      • I think it really is a pretty BFD to have POTUS sounding like Atrios.

        I would pay a shiny new quarter to hear Obama tell someone (almost anyone) “You talk too much.”

        • alex284

          Heck, I’d pay to hear him give a long-winded rant about public transport in Philly.

          • Hogan

            Wow. And here I am just giving it away.

    • so-in-so

      Is it probable that having others like Warren and even Sanders articulating a more liberal position also makes it easier for the POTUS to take such a stance?

      Even the centrists may end at “Sure, he did say increase SS, but at LEAST he isn’t calling for free college like that socialist guy!”.

      • Steve LaBonne

        Absolutely, that’s exactly why I supported Sanders until he went into sore-loser mode.

      • CP

        This is not only why I love Elizabeth Warren, but specifically why I want her to stay right where she is, not move into the White House like so many of her fans want.

    • Dilan Esper

      Correct. The Overton Window exists. But so does backlash politics.

      • There’s no evidence that the Overton Window exists certainly not in it’s strong form.

        Obviously, some topics are unknown or verboten then become known and even popular. That’s not the same thing at all. (The Overton Window assumes a pretty strong at least partial order from two particular poles (“Statism” and “Freedom”) and that, well, it’s a “window” so typically moving it means that as some things get in, some things (from the far side) go out.)

        • Scott Lemieux

          The Overton Window is back-of-a-cocktail-napkin junk. As you say, in its weak form it’s banal and in its strong form there’s no evidence for it.

          • I for one look forward to the day when people stop treating the Overton Window like it is a real thing.

            • Scott Lemieux

              People like it because it suggests that political maximalism has no downside; even if you lose, you win.

              • And if there’s one thing that political history shows, it’s that there no downside to political maximalism!!!

              • I think it also gives an illusion of control (and a justification for lack of control). If you are outside the window, then it’s no surprise you can’t convince people. But there’s a solution! SHIFT THE WINDOW!!! And people who take kooky positions still are contributing! Ron Paul is putting the ideas out there!

                And then you can talk a whole lot of nonsense that sounds good. If you can’t shift it, maybe you can enlarge it! Etc. etc.

            • efgoldman

              I for one look forward to the day when people stop treating the Overton Window like it is a real thing.

              Damn. I need some new windows on the house; I was gonna’ call Overton, because I thought they’d be cheaper than Anderson.

              • Never get your windows from a third party candidate.

              • tsam

                Funny–You add two letters to Overton and you have my surname. I sometimes sell windows. (Commercial ones–don’t call me).

            • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

              Well, it will be retired at some point. But I’m not sure it’ll make the Hall of Fame, cuz I’m pretty certain the Overton Window’s on steroids.

          • tsam

            Well, I think there’s something to that–at least how I look at support for same sex marriage. There was a giant, rapid shift in attitude about it–isn’t that what we mean when we say Overton Window?

            • isn’t that what we mean when we say Overton Window?

              To the degree people say that, it’s the banal form, i.e., popular opinion can change in surprising, often non-linear ways.

              For it to be the proper Overton Window, gay marriage would appear on a scale between freedom and statism. It would be adjacent to some other policies, like, I don’t know, high marginal tax rates, with similar “freedomness” or “stateness”. So if the window shifted to include gay marriage, you’d predict that “similarly free” items would also be acceptable.

              Gay marriage is a great example to show the nonsense. Is it adding freedom or unwarranted state interference? Well, the people who like it say the first and the people who don’t like it say the second. It doesn’t have an “inherent” freedomness and people tend to associate it with other things they like or dislike as they have a first order liking to disliking for gay marriage.

              Consider how poorly the analogy with miscegenation worked out. If anything is close to pro-gay marriage positions, anti-miscengenation is. Yet, afaict, that did absolutely nothing to convince people. (Other things did, like increasing exposure to gay people.)

              • tsam

                Wow, man…that’s thinking way too hard about it. I like my concept of it better. Let’s go with that.

                • The tsam thingy?

                  Or we could look at the Loomis Tirade (i.e., that change doesn’t happen because politicians lead the way). That was a key part of the Overton Window (though I think in Overton’s terms politicians could lead, but they won’t go outside the window).

                • though I think in Overton’s terms politicians could lead, but they won’t go outside the window

                  With appropriate assistance, though, they could go through it!

                • Hogan

                  The Defenestration of Overton.

  • humanoid.panda

    Paul Waldman has a smart push-back on this though:

    Liberals have only been pushing back against that coalition in a serious way for a few years now. There are some high-profile voices debunking the myth that Social Security is “going broke,” most notably Paul Krugman’s (I won’t bother to go over again why it’s a myth, but if you’re interested I explained it here). But they’ve been hampered by the fact that so many Democratic politicians want to communicate that they too are Very Serious, so they accept some of the premises of the other side’s argument, ceding half the battle over the existence of the program.

    Basically, his argument is that having a leader of the party making a strong liberal (or conservative) argument legitimates it, and injects it into the political mainstream, and makes it less likely for other members of the party to argue against it. I think this version of the bully pulpit/Overtown window argument is worth grappling with.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      this was the thing that bothered me at the time: I eventually understood the idea that the conditions Obama had placed on any great bargain were impossible for the republicans to meet- but I was still kind of irate that he was buying into their mythology about Social Security. Since then I’ve come to see the failure of the chained CPI as something that finally stopped the momentum of the ‘cutting Social Security is *necessary*” push. It was going to take some time, and a consolidation of sorts within the Democrats, to start moving toward expansion though

      I think people overestimate politicians sometimes in that they think the pols have all this stuff mapped out. They try- but the good ones, like Obama, can roll with the changes

    • ColBatGuano

      If “moving the Overton window” only means making Robert Samuelson look like an idiot, then I’ll still believe in it.

  • Tyro

    When it comes to the Overton Window, Democrats make their classic mistake of focusing on the presidency and missing the more important lower positions and offices. To move the Overton window, you want democratic activists, state legislators, select governors, congressmen, and junior senators staking out the left-most-acceptable positions until they become normalized. At that point a president can “follow along” AFTER the president himself has gotten elected on a platform of being a safe voice of moderate middle of the road reasonable moderation during the campaign.

    A president who tries to move the Overton window himself without the public behind him already will rush headlong into a propeller.

    • CP

      Correct. Although, and conservatives understand this, government itself isn’t where it starts – you need extra-governmental infrastructure too, like the right wing alternate media and grassroots network of evangelical churches. Unions and political machines used to be the big equivalent for us, but they’ve both been pretty well decimated (not necessarily a bad thing in the latter case, but we don’t have much to replace it at the moment).

    • Rob in CT

      This sounds right to me. Which is presumably what Scott means by change coming from below. There is enough support for this from others – from liberal pundits, think-takers, House members, Warren & likeminded Senators including Sanders, that Obama has space to go there. And so he has.

      It also helps that the GOP is stark raving mad.

      • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

        There’s an interesting side issue with another locally led issue, the Fight for $15 – if the minimum wage goes up, and the net job losses at minimum wage are small, FICA revenues would also go up, and IIRC it should improve the health of the SS (and Medicare. IIRC) trust funds. CBO estimated a minimum wage hike to $10.10 would boost FICA, but it was a very qualitative estimate, and only covered net revenues, not FICA specifically. I haven’t been able to find any effects of the size, though.

  • cs

    The thing is, Bush pushing to privatize Social Security did make the idea more feasible, at least in the short term. At the time, many seemed to think he might be able to succeed. (I think one of the main reasons it failed was that it was such a terrible idea that the Republicans were never able to put out an actual detailed plan of how it was supposed to work. But if it had been a workable idea, it might have gone a lot farther thanks largely to the President putting it on the agenda.)

    • Steve LaBonne

      I think one of the main reasons it failed was that it was such a terrible idea that the Republicans were never able to put out an actual detailed plan of how it was supposed to work.

      Gee, that sounds familiar (cough ACA “replacement” cough).

    • JKTH

      I think your parenthetical is key. If you don’t actually have a good plan for the actual policy while you’re advocating for it publicly, you don’t do the policy a service at all. Privatization gutted Social Security’s financing and required trillions of dollars of transfers to make it up, which made just that part of the plan look ridiculous (let alone the private accounts part). That provides a lesson for people who want to enact, say, single-payer or a guaranteed income. Discussing it to get it on the radar is important, but once you get close enough, you’d better have a good idea of what you’re doing.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The thing is, Bush pushing to privatize Social Security did make the idea more feasible, at least in the short term.


      • cs

        I’m just relying on my memory and somewhat vague impressions (and I was never an expert on the topic, just an interested news and blog reader). Didn’t a number of Republicans who were in favor of it go out and hold “town halls” in their districts to push the idea? Obviously in hindsight it didn’t get any traction, but at the time there was some kind of movement in that direction which wouldn’t have been there if Bush hadn’t put the topic on the agenda.

        • Aaron Morrow

          That seems to fall in line with modern Presidents being divisive party leaders who make politicians in their party favor their positions and make politicians in the opposing party, well, oppose them.

          That’s not the Overton Window, that’s the Klein Wall. By raising the issue himself and making it his, Bush ensured that Democrats would oppose it.

          • JKTH

            That’s about it. Privatization was something that a few (some?) Democrats favored in the 90s, but its becoming associated with Bush made it toxic for any Dem.

            • efgoldman

              Privatization was something that a few (some?) Democrats favored in the 90s, but its becoming associated with Bush made it toxic for any Dem.

              Yes, when the markets were going up and up and up. Then the cycle did its thing, and the Dems (and the five remaining realistic Republiklowns with common sense) looked and said “what happens to us, the elected officials, if people’s SS funds go in the shitter with the private market.” Re-election is always, always job one.

        • Scott Lemieux

          The fact that Bush pushed it hard failed to make it more feasible. That’s the point.

        • ColBatGuano

          Didn’t a number of Republicans who were in favor of it go out and hold “town halls” in their districts to push the idea?

          As I remember, Bush launched this one all on his own in 2005, using his “mandate”. I don’t remember too many R’s spending a lot of political capital on it.

    • Tyro

      Feasible in the sense that pundits seemed to accept that it would happen, and even encourage it. Joel Klein was even up front about this giving arguments in favor of privatization because Bush had won and decided it was inevitable and the “way of things.”

      There almost seemed to be some resentment from the punditocracy that the public wasn’t going along with the script.

  • random

    Military actions are probably another thing where Bush totally bully-pulpited the Overton window.

    • postmodulator

      Probably in the same way that Vietnam did, yeah.

    • I think that Iraq, Gitmo, and the Bush Tax Cuts are three places where Bush didn’t so much bully pulpit the Overton Window as poison pill the sunset function. These are three major decisions which took place at a single moment in time, but whose results are irrevocable and which continue to poison the country to this day. On Obama’s side he has the ACA which is like a slow moving poison to the Republicans party–slower than I’d like but still toxic.

  • australianrulesquidditch

    >In-in-in-in-in-in-in-in-in-in-in-in-in a speech t-t-today, Okie-Dokie



  • DrS

    I’m not going to say that every position Glen Beck holds is completely wrong, but I do think if you find yourself agreeing with the political theory of one of his shitty novels, it wouldn’t hurt to examine your positions.

  • MDrew

    I perceive some responsiveness in this piece, and whether that’s a correct perception or not, today’s argument reflects well on its author.

  • politicalfootball

    Another post illustrating the blog’s peculiar, self-contradictory phobia regarding the term “Overton Window.”

    If there is no such thing as a public figure having a meaningful impact on the public conversation, then why should we care at all that Obama is talking about Social Security?

    And to what argument is Scott responding here? Is there really someone out there saying that the Overton Window dictates that any time a president addresses an issue, no future president will ever publicly disagree?

    • PJ

      Well, Scott, at least, has never been contradictory about the Green Lanternism business, and the Overton Window as related to Obama “doing” things is definitely a subset of that.

      But the shift on Social Security isn’t about Obama per se. Rather, it’s an excellent example of how political pressure from below can facilitate change.

      Obama “chose” the 8th year and the 11th hour of his presidency to articulate this message because the past few years have demonstrated, as pointed out above, an increased visibility of politicians but more importantly grassroots movements to expand wages and the social safety net that didn’t exist in 2010-11. W pushing for SS privatization lost b/c people didn’t like the idea, by and large. It’s really not that complex an argument.

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