Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ryan Lizza and "the Obama memos"

Ryan Lizza's The Obama Memos: The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency New Yorker 01/30/2012 is the kind of insider-baseball story that our punditocracy loves.

And it's an interesting story in its own right. Not least because it gives us a sense of the White House's preferred pitch to the Democratic base.

The pitch isn't too inspiring, though. There's an awful lot of gee, what can a President get done anyway? They (or just Rizza?) oddly invoke Harry Truman as a witness to that fact:

Obama was learning the same lesson of many previous occupants of the Oval Office: he didn’t have the power that one might think he had. Harry Truman, one in a long line of Commanders-in-Chief frustrated by the limits of the office, once complained that the President "has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues. ... The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make ’em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway."
Ironically, what the Truman quote conveys is that Truman was a President who put a great deal of effort into "flattering, kissing and kicking people" to get his proposals passed.


And in the famous give-'em-hell election of 1948, Truman used the Presidential campaign to aggressively blame the Republicans for their obstructionism. The White House operatives who talked to Lizza may be trying to convey that Obama now realizes he has to do that. But I'll believe it when I see it.

The Obama team's version of the Truman strategy so far, and I believe we see it repeated in this article, is more along the lines of, "Golly heck, we thought the Republicans were going to be all bipartisan and helpful and stuff. And, shoot, it's not our fault that they weren't quite like that. Who could have guessed?" Not exactly the Truman pitch.

This following version of the gee-what-can-a-President-do argument I find particularly silly. Already by the end of 2009, Obama was preparing to strike a more conservative note in 2010. Lizza writes:

Axelrod and other Obama political advisers saw anti-Keynesian rhetoric as a political necessity. They believed it was better to channel the anti-government winds than to fight them. As much as it enraged Romer and outside economists, the White House was on to something. A President's ability to change public opinion through rhetoric is extremely limited. George Edwards, after studying the successes of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, concluded that their communications skills contributed almost nothing to their legislative victories. According to his study, "Presidents cannot reliably persuade the public to support their policies” and “are unlikely to change public opinion." [my emphasis]
Wow, that's good to know. That means the Iraq War never happened. After all, it was a wild and totally unnecessary idea, and President Bush had only "extremely limited" ability to sway public opinion!

I don't know which is sillier. That the White House would suggest such a thing (if they did), or that Lizza would write it down as though it's an undisputed social science fact. What it is, is a laughable excuse. The George Edwards to whom he refers is the author of On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit (2003). His argument sounds very much like an academic attempt at originality that failed. He's reduced in the book to making arguments like this to sustain his conclusion:

Presidents, even those skilled in the rhetorical arts, are unlikely to be directors of change, reshaping the political landscape to pave the way for change. Instead, they are facilitators, whose greatest skill is recognizing and exploiting opportunities for change in their environment. Being a facilitator rather than a director of change has advantages, however. Following rather than molding public opinion makes presidents and their staffs attuned to how issues resonate with the public and thus the potential for exploiting public support to bring about change. [my emphasis]
In a formulation like this, it's hard to see any substantive difference between a President being a facilitator rather than a director of public opinion change. But even with this argument, the candidate who campaigned for Change in 2008 should presumably have been a great position for "for exploiting public support to bring about change." As Christine Lagarde said in her Berlin speech this week, quoting Hippocrates, "Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity." Opportunities pass, and spending three years hoping for a conversion of the Republican Party to bipartisanship on domestic issues was a tremendous waste of opportunity.

In fact, Edwards even makes the case that a President normally has maximum opportunity to be a change facilitator in the early part of a Presidency when the Presidential party has a solid majority in Congress. So even Edwards' flawed conclusions would suggest that Obama should have made a maximum push for his programs at the first of his Presidency. And maybe he did. Maybe he pushed for all he really wanted.

Edwards' argument that Presidents can't further their legislative agenda through a public communications strategy is also heavily based on the ideal of bipartisan compromise. Aggressive public messaging could make the other side angry and make them less likely to compromise and so endangers the President's agenda. Again: Bush, Iraq War.

Lizza, writing about 2009 after the initial stimulus was passed, reports:

Through the rest of 2009, as the anti-government Tea Party movement gathered strength, and conservative voters began to speak of creeping American socialism, Obama’s aides quarrelled over how the President should respond. [Economic adviser Christina] Romer wanted him to press the Keynesian case for his policies—to defend the proposition of increased government spending to fight the recession. Orszag argued that he needed more support from Washington’s deficit hawks, and urged him to create a deficit commission, partly because "it can provide fiscal credibility during a period in which it is unlikely we would succeed in enacting legislation."

It presented Obama with a common Presidential dilemma: Should he use the White House bully pulpit to change minds or should he accept popular opinion? He chose the latter. In his speeches, he began saying, "Americans are making hard choices in their budgets. We’ve got to tighten our belts in Washington, as well." Romer fought to get such lines removed from his speeches, arguing that it was “exactly the wrong policy." She thought the President should emphasize that the government would seek to use taxpayer money wisely, and leave it at that. Instead, he seemed to be accepting the Republican case against stimulus and for austerity. She thought he was losing faith in Keynesianism itself. [my emphasis]
Rizza reports it as a communication strategy. On that score, Romer was very right. Accepting the facile analogy of the federal budgets to family budgets - how many families have their own currency, to name just one of the absurdities of such a comparison - Obama conceded and generally promoting austerity notions that went along with it mainly reinforced the Republicans' push to limit economic growth and undermine Social Security and Medicare.

I also don't believe that it was just a communication strategy. The last three years have given us a lot of evidence that Obama, like way too many Democrats in Congress, actually worry seriously about deficits. The Republicans claim to, especially when there's a Democratic President in office. But I'll believe that there may be a Republican somewhere that actually cares about the deficit when I see Republicans in Congress during a Republican Administration insist on raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans in order to fund the increases in military spending they always demand.

It seems more likely that Obama say the situation in early 2009 as an emergency requiring extraordinary measures that normally were undesirable. To the extent he believes in affirmative government at all, it seems to be limited to the standard, timid neoliberal approach of the New Keynesians in the 1990s: do education and training, build infrastructure in the name of making the private sector more "competitive" in the world, subsidize developing technologies that are not far enough along for private companies to make a bundle off them yet.

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