Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Failed Presidency?

Here’s the lede of John F. Harris and Jim Vanderhei’s very long piece searching for an explanation of Obama’s declining political fortunes:
“The imminent passage of financial reform, just a couple months after the passage of comprehensive health care, should decisively end the narrative that President Obama represents a Jimmy Carter-style case of naïve hope crushed by the inability to master Washington.

“Yet the mystery remains: Having moved swiftly toward achieving the very policy objectives he promised voters as a candidate, Obama is still widely perceived as flirting with a failed presidency.”
That introduces a long discussion about the kind of things that preoccupy the mainstream media: Obama’s “likability,” his ideological elusiveness, the arrogance of his staff, the recalcitrance of the Democratic base and the dysfunction of the White House messaging apparatus. There’s the occasional howler, like this: “It would be impossible for the best of communicators to offer clarity and convincing words when the country is locked in two wars, wrestling with a once-in-a-lifetime oil spill and mired in high unemployment.” I guess that explains why FDR never managed to say anything memorable during a presidency that encompassed the Great Depression and World War II.

The subtext of the Harris and Vanderhei article is that Obama must be blowing it, and it’s their job to figure out how. From all appearances, it never occurs to them that the simplest explanation might be the right one. Maybe Obama’s becoming unpopular because most voters don’t like what he’s doing and aren’t buying his arguments that they should.  Entertaining any explanation that straightforward, however, would mean suspending the presumption that the unpopularity of policies redistributing resources from the haves to the have-nots can only be a function of presidential ineptitude.

Perhaps that’s a reasonable presumption in a representative democracy when the have-nots greatly outnumber the haves. When liberal presidents were championing Social Security and Medicare, for example, that was surely the case. Both policies were mostly a matter of redistributing resources among, rather than within, generations. Those looked like good deals to most people because, although they imposed  burdens upon them during their working lives, they also relieved them of the social obligation to provide for their own aged parents. Moreover, any pinch working-age people felt in connection with financing these inter-generational transfers was made more bearable by the expectation that they’d eventually be on the receiving end in old age. That explains why Social Security and Medicare were always more popular social policies than welfare and Medicaid.

Obama’s signature policies—ObamaCare, Cap-and-Trade, the Stimulus Bill and the soon-to-be enacted Financial Reform Bill—visibly redistribute resources within generations. So it matters politically how many net winners and losers there are. Although liberal policy wonks like to pretend otherwise, most people don’t believe that figuring out whether they're winners or losers is rocket science.

Take ObamaCare. Yes, it’s a moral scandal that so many people who want affordable health insurance can’t get it. That’s why a lot of people who are satisfied with their own health insurance warmed to Obama’s campaign rhetoric about health care reform, especially in light of his promise that universal coverage would be financed entirely by tax-increases on the relatively few people making more than $250K/year without disturbing satisfactory arrangements people had already made in the private insurance market. Now those people are finding that, at least for the foreseeable future, they’ll probably have to pay for their clear conscience either by accepting less attractive insurance coverage for their families or paying more to maintain the coverage they already have.

You can say substantially the same thing about Obama’s other signature policies: Cap-and-Trade looks like a net transfer of wealth from the people residing in coal-dependent states to people residing in other states; the Stimulus looks like a net transfer of wealth from private sector to public sector employees; financial reform looks like a net transfer of wealth from Main Street to Wall Street. In each case, the number of expected net losers plausibly exceeds the number of net winners.

That doesn’t mean that any or all of these policies are bad ideas. But it surely explains their present unpopularity better than idle speculation about messaging and political maneuvering.


SPN Headlines said...


Regarding Financial Reform, President Obama says John Q Public is "Joe Jerkwad." - SHOCKING deets are at:

Peace! :-)

Anonymous said...

I love the blog, and would love to hear your thoughts on this point.

The Democrats have huge majorities in both the House and Senate, and hold the Presidency. In my view, the recent historic legislative achievements (whether you applaud them or not) are a reflection of those majorities, not of Obama's competence or actions. If we must place credit (blame), it would be foremost Congress (after all, these are "legislative" achievements), and if we must personalize that credit, I'd start with Nancy Pelosi (who has the tougher task than Reid, given the difficulty of holding the House together).

So why is it that we point to all of these actions as Obama's successes (or failures)? He's the executive, not the legislator. Yes, he's the voice and face of the party in power, but his success in that role is certainly aided -- astronomically -- by his supermajority. If he deserves credit, it's for his long campaigning coattails -- that's all.

Personally, I think the President has a bigger role to play, and comes off looking more successful, when the opposite party controls Congress.