Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Obama's pre-k advocacy: agenda-setting vs. polarization

When President Obama boasted during the State of the Union address that 30 states had started preschool initiatives, I mentally gave him some credit for agenda-setting. But some contiguous corner of the mind added that there's got to be caveats to that.  A Times article today by Richard Perez-Pena and Motoko Rich about the national drive toward state-funded preschool brings the caveats into focus.

First, while momentum in the last year has been impressive,  with new initiatives in Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, and San Antonio, the movement has been picking up steam for at least a decade, with the number of children in state-funded preschool more than doubling since 2002.  And as this year's initiatives illustrate, the effort has been bipartisan. Perez-Pena and Rich outline the political imperatives:
Few government programs have broader appeal than preschool. A telephone poll conducted in July for the First Five Years Fund, a nonprofit group that advocates early education programs, found that 60 percent of registered Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats supported a proposal to expand public preschool by raising the federal tobacco tax.

“Preschool is, generally speaking, a crowd pleaser,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy group.

Business and law enforcement groups, which have the ear of conservative lawmakers, have taken the lead in lobbying for preschool, arguing that the economy requires an educated work force and that starting early is cheaper and more efficient and will mean that fewer children turn to crime in later life. A group of police chiefs and prosecutors recently issued a report in support of preschool titled “I’m the Guy You Pay Later.” Business leaders argue that the benefits are not just long-term, but immediate — that preschool creates jobs, leaves low-income parents free to work and reduces the number of children in high-priced special education programs and those having to repeat grades.
Unfortunately, as has been widely noted since Republicans took the House in 2010, presidential advocacy polarizes the parties. The testimony of political insiders bears out the statistical analysis by political scientists including Frances E. Lee that presidential advocacy on a given issue, particularly when put forward in the SOTU, increases partisan division on that issue -- even on something anodyne, like space exploration.  And sure enough, Ron Haskins, a former Bush Jr. adviser now at Brookings, makes the point:
Mr. Haskins, of Brookings, said congressional Republicans oppose a federal program “first because it’s an Obama initiative and you may have noticed that they aren’t in love with the guy,” and because of a general resistance to new social programs and taxes. He and other analysts said that Republican governors tend to take a more pragmatic, less ideological approach than their congressional counterparts, and have less fear of Tea Party-inspired primary challenges.
Obama, of course, is hyper-aware of this dynamic. He jokes repeatedly in interviews about how Republicans will demonize anything that he advocates, insists repeatedly in his speeches that they are blocking formerly bipartisan measures they had consistently backed before, like infrastructure spending or economic stimulus in recession, and speaks of the need for "everybody...getting into the boat at the same time (see "political insiders" link above) when both sides have an interest in reaching or an imperative to reach agreement.

Obama has thus obviously made his own deliberate calculation that the benefits of raising preschool's national profile, as only a president can do, outweigh the disadvantages of raising Republican resistance to it. For one thing, it is a baton that he is starting to hand down the decades, as he described his latter-day role to David Remnick in one of a series of recent interviews:

But Obama knows that major legislation—with the possible exception of immigration—is unlikely. And so there is in him a certain degree of reduced ambition, a sense that even well before the commentariat starts calling him a lame duck he will spend much of his time setting an agenda that can be resolved only after he has retired to the life of a writer and post-President. “One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he later told me. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant.
Of course, there's the danger that if Obama induces Republicans to hate state-funded preschool as they now hate state-run insurance exchanges, he will slow, not accelerate, a movement in mid-course.  But there's the countervailing advantage of rallying Democrats around it, making it a focal point of the drive to reduce income inequality, as it was for Bill de Blasio in his blowout victory in New York City's mayoral election. And as with immigration reform, it may prove one issue that Republicans can't afford to get on the wrong side of. Especially since they partially own it already. 

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