Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pulping the bully approach to presidential leadership

Occasionally at least, practicing political tacticians and political scientists arrive at the same conclusions, presumably by very different paths.

In the Times front pager on Obama's proposed budget, the most important perspective comes last, from Kent Conrad:
The budget confirms that Mr. Obama is not taking the lead in embracing the kind of far-reaching deficit-reduction plan recommended in December by a bipartisan majority of his fiscal commission. It proposed saving $4 trillion over a decade through specific cuts in spending for domestic, military and entitlement programs and new revenues from overhauling the tax code. 

Instead, he has called on Republicans to negotiate with him to reach that goal.

While that disappoints deficit hawks in both parties, many say they are sympathetic or even supportive of his caution because neither party seems ready to compromise.

Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a Democratic member of the fiscal commission, said: “In this highly partisan environment, if the president proposes something, there is automatically some group that is opposed. It may be better for him to play the role of referee.”

Mr. Conrad added: “To get a result, the president has got to be part of a larger process that involves Republicans and Democrats, the House and Senate. How one gets to the table is not just one move, it’s a series of moves. And it’s very, very difficult.” 

Compare Matthew Yglesias in December, retailing a piece of poli sci wisdom regarding presidential persuasion:
It sounds silly to call for less presidential leadership, but I think the evidence suggests that what’s needed here [in the SOTU] is actually a very vague and generic endorsement of the concept of tax reform plus some themeless pudding. Frances Lee’s important book Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the U. S. Senate argues persuasively that what happens when a president tries to “lead” on an issue like this is that a dynamic of partisan polarization kicks in. What you really need to get tax reform is for some hard-working members of congress from both parties to take the initiative in hammering out a framework and building support on the Hill. If such a thing happens, the White House should of course try to play a constructive role. But jumping all over the issue and a creating a dynamic where tax reform becomes “a key priority for the Obama administration” that opportunists on the right want to kill for the sake of a political win would not be a constructive intervention.
One more political science prof who will be glad that Obama did not use the SOTU to launch a full-blown deficit/tax reform crusade is Brendan Nyhan, who has been worrying about renewed (administration-prompted) chatter to the effect that Obama is seeking to channel Reagan-cum-great-communicator:
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.
So trot out the usual cliches with regard to budget/tax reform:  long game, multidimensional chess, not WYSIWYG.  All true.

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