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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wait, Jonathan Bernstein has a point

In my last post, I suggested that Jonathan Bernstein was warning Obama against an unlikely pitfall in suggesting that Obama not waste his energy chasing a "liberal Reagan" myth -- that is, imagining he "can win arguments for a generation by choosing exactly the right words at the right time."

Obama, I suggested, in seeking to implement his alleged realization that "you can only change [Washington] from the outside," is focused on marshaling public opinion that already supports his policy proposals, not on attempting to change public opinion from the bully pulpit.  My evidence was twofold. First, he's tried the former (tapping opinion that's already on his side) repeatedly over the last eighteen months, asking supporters to lobby their Congressional reps on behalf of "balanced" deficit reduction,  the payroll tax cut, and low interest rates for student loans, and more recently tapping public disgust with debt ceiling brinksmanship to pressure the GOP into a clean raise. Second, as I noted yesterday, in making the case in 2008 that Reagan "changed the trajectory," Obama emphasized that Reagan "tapped into what people were already feeling," not that he educated them or changed their minds by force of argument.

The distinction between seeking to channel public opinion, or perhaps even focus it when it's latent, and trying to change it, is crucial, and my impression has been that Obama recognizes this. But an interview with The New Republic's Chris Hughes and Franklin Foer sends up some warning signals.

In this interview, Obama first suggested that his preferred approaches to major long-term policy challenges are pretty much a matter of common sense -- "not rocket science" -- and then framed his task as follows:
So the question is not, Do we have policies that might work? It is, Can we mobilize the political will to act? And so, I've been spending a lot of time just thinking about how do I communicate more effectively with the American people? How do I try to bridge some of the divides that are longstanding in our culture? How do I project a sense of confidence in our future at a time when people are feeling anxious? They are more questions of values and emotions and tapping into people's spirit.
Regarding the alleged failure to communicate effectively in his first term, Obama has been saying this for more than a year, and I've always regarded it both as recognition of some genuinely poor messaging, particularly with regard to the stimulus, and as a classic version of the "I was too virtuous" school of self criticism -- so busy saving the country I forgot to explain myself. Nothing wrong with vowing to do better on the message front, nor (from a political perspective) with obliquely suggesting that all your major policies were the right ones.

But here Obama seems to be hinting at some large ambitions for his public advocacy -- and even more so in the next exchange:
CH: Have you looked back in history, particularly at the second terms of other presidents, for inspiration?

OBAMA: There are all sorts of lessons to be learned both from past presidents and my own first term. I've said this before, but one of the things that happened in the first term was that we had so many fires going on at the same time that we were focusing on policy and getting it right, which means that we were spending less time communicating with the American people about why we were doing what we were doing and how it tied together with our overarching desire of strengthening our middle class and making the economy work.

I always read a lot of Lincoln, and I'm reminded of his adage that, with public opinion, there's nothing you can't accomplish; without it, you're not going to get very far. And spending a lot more time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington is an example of the kinds of change in orientation that I think we've undergone, not just me personally, but the entire White House.
That last paragraph in particular does suggest that Obama is determined not just to channel but to try to shape and in some cases change public opinion.

It may be that I'm making an oversimplified distinction between trying to tap public opinion and trying to shape it, in that there are many areas in which opinion is ambiguous or inchoate and so potentially malleable. For example, the public as a whole does not understand the debt ceiling well -- that's it's authorization for spending already approved, not a license for new spending -- and their disgust with the threat of default may be at odds with a generalized belief that the debt should be reduced.

Arguably, too, Obama has a good working sense of when to tap existing popular support for a position, when to try to give public opinion a nudge, and when not to try (and ditto for trying to move opposition in Congress). Current indications that he's going to push hard for universal background checks for guns sales while throwing an assault weapons ban overboard point toward a continued grounding in political reality -- as does this exchange in the TNR interview:
Franklin Foer: Let's talk about that in terms of guns. How do you speak to gun owners in a way that doesn't make them feel as if you're impinging upon their liberty?

Well, in our comments today, I was very explicit about believing that the Second Amendment was important, that we respect the rights of responsible gun owners. In formulating our plans, Joe Biden met with a wide range of constituencies, including sportsmen and hunters.

So much of the challenge that we have in our politics right now is that people feel as if the game here in Washington is completely detached from their day-to-day realities. And that's not an unjustifiable view. So everything we do combines both a legislative strategy with a broad-based communications and outreach strategy to get people engaged and involved, so that it's not Washington over here and the rest of America over there. 

That does not mean that you don't have some real big differences. The House Republican majority is made up mostly of members who are in sharply gerrymandered districts that are very safely Republican and may not feel compelled to pay attention to broad-based public opinion, because what they're really concerned about is the opinions of their specific Republican constituencies.

There are going to be a whole bunch of initiatives where I can get more than fifty percent support of the country, but I can't get enough votes out of the House of Representatives to actually get something passed.
On balance, I still feel reasonably confident that Obama is not going to go tilting at public opinion windmills, as Bush did on Social Security privatization.  But on reflection, I think that Bernstein's warning -- if not his dismissal of Reagan's 'transformative' status -- is well taken.

Related:
What exactly is the danger for Obama in chasing the "liberal Reagan" mantle?
Yes, Reagan did change the trajectory

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