Tuesday, April 09, 2013

When the public supports the president's position...then what?

I have learned from political scientists including Brendhan Nyhan and Jonathan Bernstein that presidents generally can't sway public opinion via appeals from the bully pulpit.  National Journal report George Condon, relaying the thoughts of political scientist George C. Edwards III, encapsulates the accepted wisdom:
“It is true for all presidents. They virtually never move public opinion in their direction,” Edwards tells National Journal. Citing polling numbers for six decades and multiple presidents, he says, “It happened for Ronald Reagan. It happened for FDR. It happens all the time. You should anticipate failure if you’re trying to change people’s minds. The data is overwhelming.” What Edwards learned is that presidents succeed in rallying the public when the public already agrees with them.
With regard to Obama, however, Edwards' cited examples do not fit his categories. His analysis -- perhaps sharply abbreviated by Condon -- glides over the ambiguities involved in "rallying the public when the public already agrees":

The people agreed with Obama that the rich should pay more in taxes, agreed with Reagan that everybody should get a tax cut, and agreed with Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security. These presidents didn’t need to move the needle on these issues; all they had to do was marshal support. But the same three presidents, using the same bully-pulpit tactics, failed to win over the people—and the lawmakers—on other fronts.

...four years of speeches have yet to gain solid public support for Obama’s health care overhaul. And the president’s many speeches on the sequester or on his jobs plan never won over the public, let alone members of Congress. “Now, he is doing it about guns,” Edwards says. “And he’s not going to have any more success.... Presidents just are not successful in changing people’s minds.”
The categories are screwed up here. Obama won his limited tax hike ($600 billion over ten years) because the Bush tax cuts expired on Jan. 1, not because public opinion was on his side: he could have only tested that opinion by going over the cliff and fighting for the $1.2 trillion over ten years that represented his last compromise proposal to Boehner.  Conversely, in all Edwards' examples of purported bully pulpit futility, Obama can claim, with varying degrees of certitude, to have the public on his side.

Over 90% of the public, as he never now tires of noting, have expressed support in polls for universal background checks in gun sales -- and indeed, there is evidence today that Obama may be making headway on this front, as seven GOP senators have indicated they'll buck a filibuster.  Strong majorities also approved almost every element in his jobs proposal in fall 2011, which Edwards cites as a failed appeal to the public. (Ironically, the one element in his plan for which Gallup reported less than majority support in September 2011, the payroll tax cut, was the only element he succeeded in pushing through, marshaling significant public pressure.)  Finally, the polling on sequestration is ambiguous: people disapprove of almost every specific target for spending cuts they're asked about, and approve of Obama's "balanced approach" to deficit reduction and sequestration replacement, even as they disapprove of his "handling" of the issue.  In any case, the effects of the cuts have yet to be felt yet.

When Obama started talking about changing Washington from the outside rather than the inside last fall, I was confident that he was signaling an intent to marshal the public to support policies that polls showed they already supported, as he had done in support of extending the payroll tax cut into 2012. And he has done so, with mixed and inconclusive results.  As noted, he may be making headway on gun control.  When it comes to taxes, it seems that Republicans are impervious to public opinion, and it's in any case hard to arouse much passion in the public around a specific number:  I suspect that as far as the public is concerned, Obama got his tax hike. That fight was more about leverage -- the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the double-edged sword of sequestration -- and Obama should have recognized that and made his stand for a "balanced" approach as both the tax hikes and spending cuts kicked in.  As the sequestration cuts bite he may have another chance to rally opinion in favor of a "balanced" replacement, but the pain of those cuts is diffuse and will kick in relatively gradually.

When a president has public support on his side to greater or less degree, the extent to which he can leverage that support is fact specific -- dependent, among other factors, on whether the effects of getting or not getting his way will be felt immediately, the potential payoffs of cooperation for all or a significant chunk of the opposition, the clarity and force of public opinion, and the unity in his own party (which action from the bully pulpit may help forge).  Political scientists can tell us pretty clearly that trying to sway public opinion when it's against the president won't work. But it's harder to generalize about the circumstances under which marshaling public support may be effective.

No comments:

Post a Comment