Monday, September 26, 2011

Voters: compromise good, capitulation bad

When the first polls came in after the lopsided debt ceiling deal and subsequent stock market tumble, Jonathan Chait billed the budget deal Obama's Katrina

That rang ominously true to me. Shortly afterward, my sister-in-law, a compassionate Democrat and social worker who stumped with my wife and me* for Obama in ''08, told me tenderly that people were wondering whether Obama was strong enough to be president.  Oh oh... Hence, when apparently anomalous polls found that Americans disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy while approving of most of the proposals in his jobs plan, it seemed plain to me that Obama was being punished not for advocating the wrong policies but for failing to put his policies across.

Now here is Michael Tomasky quoting Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux affirming the notion that Obama is suffering from perceived weaknes. Citing  Kaiser Family Foundation polling (though the article provides no actual data on this point),  Molyneux tells Tomasky

that while independents as a group are astonishingly right down the middle between Democrats and Republicans on a number of questions, there are a few on which they’re closer to Democrats, like protecting Social Security and being open to some defense cuts. But there’s something else important to them. “They also want someone who can run things, a person who can make things work,” Molyneux says.
Okay. But in drawing political lessons from the alleged polling data, Tomasky rather misrepresents what happened in the debt ceiling negotiations and what Obama was trying to accomplish:
This is what Democrats misunderstand about independent voters. Obama and his people seemed to think that over the summer, independents wanted them to cut a deal with the GOP on the debt ceiling. He’d look moderate, reasonable. So they cut it. Result: they lost about 8 points among independents, who hated the deal because it symbolized dysfunction and because the president looked weak.
So they cut it?  Yes, but they didn't cut the deal Obama wanted. He wanted to cut spending and raise taxes, and so put the U.S., by his lights, on a firm financial footing for ten years and put the deficit wars behind him. That's what he told the American people, repeatedly, through the summer. They believed him. They supported him -- polls showed strong backing for his "balanced" approach to deficit reduction. And he couldn't do it -- not because he was happy to just cut spending, but because he lashed himself to the debt ceiling mast, notwithstanding the fact that Republicans were swearing their willingness to row him (and the country) over a cliff.  He is being punished in the court of public opinion not for trying to compromise but for failing to get a compromise.

The difference is important. Obama does not need to abandon his goal of fruitful compromise -- some stimulus and some tax increases on one side, back-loaded spending cuts (or better, Medicare cost controls) on the other. He needs to change the tactics by which he seeks it. Of course, it's probably too late now -- Republicans will not let him off the cross of a flatlined economy and a policy defeat by granting him either a perceived political accomplishment or a chance to actually goose the economy.  That will probably leave him with Plan B -- hammering them for not compromising along the lines he's been proposing for a year.

On the other hand, if by some miracle popular support for Obama's proposals does induce the GOP to compromise -- say, to pass pieces of his jobs plan and/or a deficit reduction package with some doubtless inadequate revenue increases -- Obama will most def take that half loaf.

UPDATE: Agreeing that Obama is "being punished in the court of public opinion not for trying to compromise but for failing to get a compromise," Kevin Drum adds:
And you know who understands this really, really well? The Republican leadership.

This is one of the reasons I've long been skeptical of the notion that Obama should have fought harder for progressive legislation even when it was likely to fail. "At least people would know where he stands," goes the usual mantra. And that's true. But what people would also know is that he didn't have the juice to get anything done. You can stand on a soapbox forever and tell people that this is all the fault of those obstructionist Republicans, but most of them aren't paying attention. They'll just vaguely hear that Obama failed yet again and start to think that the guy's a loser.
While that may be true as far it goes, I think that there's a qualitative difference between proposing legislation that the other side blocks and being forced to sign legislation that advances the other side's agenda while failing to advance your own.  Obama might respond that he does think we need to cut spending. But to do so without the "balance" of tax hikes was universally perceived as a loss for him. And rightly so.

* Thanks to Jeff Weintraub for delicately alerting me to the prissiest of grammar errors here (now corrected) -- using "I" instead of "me" when the pronoun is the object of a preposition.

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