Friday, April 29, 2011

Obama, the public, and economic policy

Jed Lewison at Daily Kos reports an important polling result: Poll: Fiscal policy speech had no impact on Obama economic approval rating 04/28/2011. His analysis makes good sense to me, up to a point:

... I think Obama gave a great speech. But these sorts of numbers are a stark reminder that when it comes to the economy, voters couldn't care less about the details of the long-term deficit debate. They don't like the idea of debt, but what they spend their days worried about are things like jobs, income, and gas prices, and to the extent that the national economic debate doesn't address those things, it's irrelevant to them.

To be clear, I'm not saying President Obama's speech was unimportant, nor do I believe that he shouldn't make the case for his vision of for long-term fiscal policy. But talking about that long-term fiscal policy vision in the context of a grand debate about debt really fails to address what people are concerned about. It also sells that vision short, because the vision is about so much more than just reducing debt: it's really about investing in America and its people so that we can build a better future.

In this case, "up to a point" means where Lewison assumes that Obama really does have a long-term vision that is more than stock neoliberal economics. And he loses me when he gets here: "I think a big part of the problem here is actually rooted in communications and political strategy." This is a version of what in the 1960s came to be considered a hackneyed liberal avoidance of issues: "What we have here is a problem of communication."

This is also the limitation of the advice that George Lakoff has been giving. He has good ideas about Democratic messaging. But he, too, assumes that the Obama White House is interested in advancing liberal/progressive programs, policies, ideas and visions. Sure, the Republicans call him a liberal Marxist Kenyan Muslim. But they would say the same thing if his policies were the same as John Boehner's.

These poll results don't necessarily mean good news for Democratic progressives. Beginning with that speech, Obama has good on the rhetorical offensive, using progressive themes of defending Medicare against the Republicans' Ryan plan. We'll have to see how it goes. I do think the communication-problem analysis gets to an important point: at a time when the already-weak economy is showing further signs of weakness, when jobs are scarce and unemployment is high, when inflation is no threat and the economy is in a liquidity trap, the Obama White is fighting the economic policy battle on Republican terms - focusing on the deficit.

The poll results on Obama's deficit speech also may indicate that the speech itself just wasn't that good. Democratic liberals, even skeptical ones, were happy to see Obama talking a real Democrat on Medicare. But not everybody may have been so anxious to hear something encouraging from the President as partisan Democrats were.

Elizabeth Drew, an Establishment journalist who is a good one, within the confines that Beltway conventional wisdom imposes, also makes the assumption that Obama's goals are basically liberal/progressive in Obama and the House Radicals NYR Blog 04/15/2011:

Obama should be in a better political position as he enters into the upcoming negotiations about the debt ceiling than he was when he negotiated the April 8 agreement: since that didn't go so well for him, he should have learned some lessons. He could begin with correcting an odd tendency, displayed throughout his presidency, to make premature concessions, perhaps to appear "reasonable" — he must have learned by now that an opponent simply pockets the concession and keeps demanding more.
Obama has repeatedly shown that he can take a hard line negotiating with Democratic liberals in defending a Blue Dog conservative deal like the health care reform or the a Republican deal like the billionaires' tax subsidy deal late last year. Then she departs from the Beltway Village consensus, a bit anyway, in suggesting that cuts to Social Security and Medicare may be something less that courageous proposal to deal with an allegedly urgent threat of debt and deficits:

But the Republicans' proposal to in effect destroy Medicare is always a very unpopular idea. Republicans seem to have a tin ear about entitlement programs. (George W. Bush's proposal to partially privatize Social Security went nowhere fast.)
But she concludes on a note of High Broderism, assuming the automatic virtue of bipartisanship:

Still, the Democrats now have to deal with the fact that the Ryan proposal, which the House was expected to pass on Friday afternoon, will be on the table as the only serious alternative to the President's proposal—unless a bipartisan deal comes to Obama's and the Democrats' rescue.
She does, however, have enough realism to recognize this, though she does express it as though she thinks the last three decades of neoliberal economic policies were continuations of New Deal trends:

But if the Democrats lull themselves into thinking they can just sit back while the Republicans destroy their own reelection chances, they could awaken some day to find that there has been an abrupt reversal of the direction that, with a few brief interludes, this country has been going in since the l930s, and an upending of longstanding assumptions about the relationship of the state and individuals.
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