Friday, September 21, 2012

Ezra Klein's unconvincing theory that Obama misunderstands (or misrepresents) "change"

Ezra Klein, noting that Obama has recently revamped the way he talks about "change," attempts a massive debunk.  Obama is now claiming that he's learned, "you can't change Washington from the can only change it from the outside. That's how I got elected. That's how the big accomplishments like health care got done."

Nonsense, protests Ezra. All the change that Obama effected was the result of inside baseball -- buying off corporate interests, herding Democratic cats, striving (mostly unsuccessfully) to win opposition buy-in. Obama brought policy change, but not change in the way Washington works. The latter is an impossible goal for a president or any one person.

In my view, Klein is viewing this question too narrowly. Obama is well aware of the limitations of the bully pulpit, and he's got to know better than any person on the planet that presidential advocacy polarizes, entrenching the opposing party in implacable opposition to whatever the president proposes. Yet, in presenting a revamped theory of how the presidency works, he's not just feeding us a line of BS.  And if Obama wins reelection, I believe that we will look back five or ten or twenty years from now and recognize that yes, Obama did change the way Washington works. Or at the very least, he kept the US on a sane policy course in a time of extreme polarization and thus gave (will have given...) the system space to self-correct, as it has in the past.

Let's start with Klein's objection to Obama's characterization of how healthcare reform got done:
The health-care process, which I reported on extensively, was a firmly “inside game” strategy. There were backroom deals with most every major interest group and every swing legislator....

By the time the law passed, many more Americans viewed it unfavorably than viewed it favorably — exactly the opposite of what you’d expect if health care had passed through an “outside game” strategy in which, as Obama put it, “the American people … put pressure on Congress to move these things forward.”

 And yet, health care passed. The inside game worked.
All true, laddie. And yet, in claiming that the impetus for healthcare reform came from the outside, I don't think Obama is attempting to whitewash this long and messy process -- or is even referring to it. He is alluding to the marshaling or channeling of popular will that got him elected.

The essence of Obama's primary election argument against Hillary Clinton was that he was better equipped to marshal the popular will for fundamental change -- with healthcare reform as the centerpiece -- than she was. I well remember the moment when that argument first impressed itself on me. It was in a debate in the immediate aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, on Jan. 5, 2008:
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
Cue the political science eye-roll.  The American people were not "determined" that healthcare reform per se  had to occur.  You can't read the results of the 2008 wave election as a "mandate" for a specific policy. In the aftermath, the electoral tide went back out with a vengeance.

But it's also true that in two years of campaigning Obama's words did inspire people, that the American people were hungry for change after Bush, that Obama made a broad and conceptually coherent case for moving the center of American politics back to the left with a renewed commitment to shared prosperity and investment in the common good, and that healthcare reform was at the center of that case.  True too that the results of that election gave him enough of a majority to persist, even when relentless Republican misinformation and bad-faith negotiation and delay eroded public support.

Obama also used the bully pulpit at crucial points, if not to rally public opinion, at least to re-commit wavering Democrats -- and also to convince the public, as he enduringly has, that he was more of a good faith negotiator, more willing to compromise, than the Republicans.  Those pressure points were the September 2009 speech he gave to a joint session of Congress, and the remarkable eight-hour symposium he staged with the leadership of both parties in late February 2010 to showcase the extent to which the ACA incorporated past Republican proposals and met goals allegedly shared by both parties, as well as his own bend-over-backwards willingness to incorporate any Republican ideas that could reasonably be cast as advancing those goals.

In a series of posts about Ronald Reagan, Brendhan Nyhan has demonstrated that presidential rhetoric generally does not sway public opinion.  Savvy politicians channel public opinion; transformative ones seize an opportunity when their basic narrative of where the country needs to go aligns with a shift in public opinion, usually in response to recent setbacks or turmoil.  Obama, like Reagan, effected major change in his first two years because he caught such a wave -- he amassed the political capital, and he spent it, and we got what he paid for.  The force from outside -- a wave election -- empowered Obama to work change from inside in a system that reached a new peak of dysfunctionality.

Klein's also objects to Obama's pitch for how to effect change going forward. In 2011, he notes, Obama highlighted the substantial change won from the messy inside game of legislating, touting the long list of legislative accomplishments of the 111th Congress. In election season, he has reverted to a keynote of his 2008 campaign: change comes from you, the electorate; it happens when  ”the American people … put pressure on Congress to move these things forward.”  Klein regards this as election season hooey:
But while this theory of change might play better, it’s the precise theory of change that the last few years have shattered.

Whatever you want to say about the inside game, it worked. Legislation passed. But after the midterm elections, it stopped working. And so the White House moved towards an outside game strategy, where ”the American people … put pressure on Congress to move these things forward.” Perhaps the most public example was Obama’s July 2011 speech, in which he said:
I’m asking you all to make your voice heard.  If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know.  If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.
So many Americans responded that Congress’s Web site crashed. But Obama didn’t get his “balanced approach,” which meant a deal including taxes.
Klein goes on to recount that throughout the past year of confrontation with the GOP, pushing a jobs package that had broad popular support, Obama won only one minor victory, extension of the payroll tax cut.  He then reverts to two political science tenets: presidential advocacy entrenches the opposition, and it can't move popular opinion. But I think he misreads Obama's pitch, strategy and record on several counts.

First, he understates Obama's (and the Democrats') successes in the year of confrontation that has followed the debt ceiling debacle. He writes off the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefit extension as small beer. But this was actually a near-total victory in two stages against entrenched opposition, and it won Obama some vital back-door stimulus for the second year running in the wake of the GOP House takeover. It was followed by a similar GOP cave-in on maintaining low student loan interest rates -- and then again, by the collapse of the House GOP effort to renege on the Budget Control Act and impose still more spending cuts. Presidential rhetoric may not change the public mind. But when it's in sync with voter's propensities, it can deploy public opinion to bring pressure to bear on the opposition.

Second, it's true that under threat of GOP debt ceiling extortion, Obama successfully marshaled public opinion in favor of his "balanced"approach to deficit reduction but wasn't able to use that pressure to move the GOP off their no-new-taxes intransigence.  But that battle ain't over yet, and popular support for Obama's position is political capital that's still in the bank.  In the upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations, Obama, if he wins reelection, will have the whip hand, given the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and Republican teeth-gnashing over the defense cuts in the sequester. Speaking of which, Obama's refusal to intervene in the supercommittee negotiations as Republicans stonewalled once again over any tax hikes banked him further capital in this upcoming fight. Republicans are screaming much louder than Democrats about the sequester, disastrous though the cuts may be on the domestic side.

Third, it's rational for Obama to recast his bid for change in election season, because of course he's seeking further "change" from the outside, i.e., more Democrats elected to Congress. He's not going to win a mandate as in 2008, or, most likely, majorities in both houses of Congress. But he has to make the pitch for being granted renewed tools to advance his agenda.

Finally, a key part of Obama's "you are the change" pitch in his convention speech was a frank call to play defense -- to protect the changes wrought in his first term and fend off the further capture of the electoral process and the nation's resources by the oligarchy the GOP represents:
If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible … well, change will not happen.  If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health-care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen.  Only you have the power to move us forward.
Maybe not as far forward as in 2009-10. But as James Fallows argued at length, reaping the harvest of the potentially transformative legislation of those two years depends on Obama's reelection. The ultimate success of the ACA and Dodd-Frank depend on a long hard slog of implementation. Meaningful electoral reform depends on the next Supreme Court appointments. Continued effective environmental regulation depends on not letting in the dereg wrecking crew -- and that goes for virtually all regulatory channels. And as Obama says, he is holding the line against further rollback of women's rights.

But, you might object, Klein's point is not that Obama has no legislative accomplishments -- it's that he hasn't changed the way Washington works. I don't think the two can be separated. Current Republican legislation accelerates income inequality, which is probably the macro force driving Republican extremism, as an ever more powerful elite finds new ways to buy elections and neuter effective opposition, e.g., by voter suppression and anti-union legislation.  Moreover, certain majority perceptions have persisted through Obama's term: that he is more pragmatic and fact-based, more willing to negotiate in good faith and compromise than the Republicans, and that he care more for and understands the problems of ordinary people more than his opponents.

In other words -- don't laugh -- he has led by example.  He is seen by a majority as being less representative of what they hate about Washington than his opponents. If he wins reelection, several dysfunctions may be at least partially discredited: the massive infusion of billionaire megabucks into political campaigns, procedural obstruction in the Senate; feverish demonization of everything the party in power proposes; anti-tax absolutism.  If he wins, Obama's argument that "the fever will break," and the Republicans will start a long march back toward the center, may not be an impossible dream.

It better not be. It's fair to wonder about the United States: is the current political dysfunction linear, a sign of permanent decline, as Klein suggests in one incidental swipe in this piece, or is it cyclical, an imbalance that our democracy will self-correct? Put another way, does our sclerotic democratic machinery still allow enough genuine choice to enable the system to self-correct? We may be in a race: will electoral defeat pull the Republican party back to the center before the current extremist incarnation gets a fresh crack at tearing down the norms, taboos and institutions that have been key to our past success?  For the moment, Obama stands in the breach wrought by the GOP in the Bush years.

Update: Jonathan Bernstein adds into the mix of a type of change that Obama and the Dems did not pursue:
More plausible, however, was another path that Obama downplayed or ignored: institutional change in Washington. Obama could have made procedural reform in the Senate a major priority. He could have made executive branch reform a strong priority as well, including White House openness. For the most part, however, those were minor or forgotten goals of the administration. Again: I don’t think Democrats really wanted those things, at least compared with health care reform (or, for that matter, climate legislation). But if Barack Obama had made structural government reform his priority, it’s certainly possible it could have happened – at the cost, perhaps, of losing some legislative battles he did win.

1 comment:

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