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Friday, January 25, 2013

What exactly is the danger for Obama in chasing the "liberal Reagan" mantle?

Yesterday, I offered a partial dissent from Jonathan Bernstein's contention that it's a myth that Ronald Reagan "defined an era" or, to borrow Obama's 2008 phrase, "changed the trajectory of America."  Reagan, I argued, did set the ideological mold that subsequently hardened into GOP dogma, not least by at least appearing to demonstrate that tax cuts can unleash economic growth.

I'd like now to probe a little deeper into exactly what Jon was warning Obama against. I'm not certain, but I suspect that the warning may pertain to a perceived flaw in Obama's current political strategy fingered by Ezra Klein and others. Eliding out the meat of Bernstein's debunking of the "transformative Reagan" myth, here's his advice for Obama:
Here’s the problem. Ronald Reagan wasn’t really the Reagan of everyone’s imagination. So aspiring to be a “liberal Reagan” is chasing a fantasy. Worse than that—it’s a fantasy that can easily distract a president from the real things that he should be doing....


Add it all up and Obama, if he wants to be a president who really changes things for the better, should … well, it’s boring and obvious, but he should mostly focus on promoting good public policy. Not fighting the good fight or talking the good talk for liberal ideals, but just getting done whatever he can get done given all the constraints that surround him. Well-implemented plans will be hard for subsequent presidents to displace. And presidents who make good policy tend to be popular, thereby ensuring that partisans seek to replace them (not only immediately, but into the future) with similar candidates. In other words, he should pretty much focus on being a good president, and let the rest of it take care of itself. No, it’s not as exciting as imagining that Obama can win arguments for a generation by choosing exactly the right words at the right time—but no one, certainly not Ronald Reagan, could do that. And it does have the benefit of being how politics really works.
What exactly is the concern about Obama's future course? It seems unlikely that he would devote himself so wholeheartedly to beautiful speechmaking that he'd forget to work hard to shape and win votes for legislation that passes through Congress or to implement the Affordable Care Act or Dodd-Frank.

What I suspect Bernstein is worried about is that Obama will be tempted to substitute the bully pulpit for legislative dealing. That is, Obama may succumb to the myth that Reagan's great communication induced the electorate to support his policies, a myth debunked by Brendan Nyhan:
I've repeatedly pointed out that Reagan's powers of persuasion have been wildly overstated. Contrary to the claims of John Judis, George Packer, and others, neither Reagan's thematic message nor his populist rhetoric prevented him from suffering politically as a result of the 1981-1982 recession. Similarly, despite the claims of his former chief of staff Ken Duberstein (who is quoted making a similar statement by Time), Reagan's high-profile speeches didn't build consensus for his agenda -- they often increased opposition to it, prompting his own pollster to suggest that he stop using that approach.
What has worried some political science-minded supporters of Obama's agenda is that since the fall campaign Obama has indicated, by word and deed, that he intends to bring public pressure to bear in legislative battles. At the Univision forum on September 20,  Obama said, "“The most important lesson I’ve learned is you can’t change Washington from the inside.”  Since winning reelection he has signaled his intent to keep supporters mobilized and lobbying the congressional reps -- on taxing the wealthy, implementing gun control measures, etc.

I think there's an important distinction to be made in the way Obama intends to engage the populace, however. There's no indication that he's under the illusion that he can change public opinion by force of argument. Let's go back to the origins of the liberal Reagan meme -- planted, like so many ideas about Obama, by Obama himself (and there's some pretty good evidence of effective communication, no?). E.J. Dionne recently quoted from the Jan. 15, 2008 interview in which Obama spoke of a transformative presidency:
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said. “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. . . . He tapped into what people were already feeling, which was: We want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
“I think we are in one of those times right now,” Obama went on, “where people feel like things as they are going aren’t working, that we’re bogged down in the same arguments that we’ve been having and they’re not useful. And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out.”
He tapped into what people were already feeling. To me, that bespeaks a sophisticated understanding of how a president capitalizes on public support -- and it explains what Obama is trying to do now: mobilize and articulate public opinion that is already on his side on core issues.

Back in September, Ezra Klein argued that this too had proved and would prove an ineffective battering ram against a recalcitrant opposition. I disputed the record. Now there's pretty good evidence that Obama used the bully pulpit effectively with respect to the latest debt ceiling deadline, as he did to get the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits extended a year ago. We will see if he succeeds in inducing "you" (us) to exert effective pressure on Congress going forward.

1 comment:

  1. I love that the president is always planting seeds for political conversation, It reminds me of when Richard Wolffe spoke of a few convos he had where the president said if he wasn't running for president he'd want to follow the campain and write a book about it. Wolffe thought it was a stupid idea because the market was so saterated with internet articals. It turns out the pres was telling a few repoters how cool this detailed account would be and they should do it. After Wolffe realized writing Renegade would be a good idea he went and told the president what a good idea had he just said hay I am president so I must have some good ideas. Wolffe said he came away feeling like he got suckerd into writing the book by Obama.

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