assessing the president

Right now, everyone on the left seems to want to criticize President Obama’s leadership or else rise to his defense–yielding a vast flow of commentary. (See, for example, Drew Westen, Matt Miller, or Tom Philips for the prosecution; Kevin Drum or Jonathan Chait for the defense.) We know things are going badly: the economy barely sputtering along, the 2012 election in doubt, the political system reaching depths beneath satire’s reach, and public opinion pretty strongly against any federal activism that might help. I think the interesting questions are:

  1. Could pursuing different policies in 2009-10 have substantially changed the situation today?
  2. Could the administration alter the situation now with substantially different policy proposals or legislative strategies?
  3. Could the president change public opinion by talking differently?

There are two reasonable sides to each of these questions, but for what it’s worth, my answers would be: no, no, and no. We now know that the US economy shrank by 5.1 percent from 2007-9 and unemployment doubled. The recovery was going to be hard and slow, and Obama took office well before a cyclical rebound was possible. (In contrast, FDR won the presidency after three years of depression, once the economy had already begun to turn the corner.) I am enough of a Keynesian to think that a gigantic stimulus might have helped, but that was not in the cards. Also, the money would have to be well spent or the political backlash would have been tremendous. A modestly larger stimulus could have mitigated suffering, but we would be in the same “macro” situation as we are now.

In 2011, even a relatively modest stimulus might prevent a double dip. So we should do that! But proposing or requesting a stimulus does not cause one to pass Congress. Indeed, the chances of its passing are near zero. So if there is an underlying strategy behind the many calls for tougher or better rhetoric, it must be the hope of changing public opinion in time for the 2012 elections.

That strategy raises the much-debated question of whether presidential rhetoric can change public opinion on matters as deeply rooted as basic trust in government. I see no examples of success. As has been widely noted, the public throughout FDRs administration favored spending cuts to balance the federal budget, and he even opted for that policy in 1937. Substantial economic growth from 1932-6 made him a popular president, and his social innovations were good–as is Obama’s health care reform. But FDR did not persuade Americans to be Keynesians. Since then, trust in government has eroded slowly but profoundly, making Keynes’ case even harder.

Two additional challenges stood in Obama’s way: substantial public money had to be spent on bailouts (very bad for public trust), and the 2010 electorate was bound to be smaller and more Republican than the 2008 electorate, because it was an off-year election. Given this combination of factors, I think no other rhetoric, narrative, strategy, or bargaining posture would have made a whole lot of difference. One of the most remarkable facts about today’s political situation is the president’s relatively high approval rating, a surprising asset for an incumbent in such terrible times.

I could certainly endorse criticisms of particular bargaining decisions and particular rhetorical choices. On the other hand, if “everyone’s basically had it with the president,” then let me say that my anger is directed elsewhere. The list includes corrupt kleptocrats, Congressional partisans who don’t care about collateral damage, and liberal pundits and opinion-leaders who reacted so tepidly to the legislative achievements of 2009-10 that they probably reduced Democratic turnout that November. I can’t prove that booing the health care plan caused the 2010 electoral shellacking, any more than I can prove that the president’s sometimes centrist rhetoric has hurt the progressive cause. But my instinct tells me the biggest fault was not his.

The main line of criticism seems to be: the administration’s legislative agenda should have been, and should remain, much more ambitious, and bolder rhetoric would persuade the public to support it. My view was and remains: the political system is broken, little can be expected from it, and the public doesn’t help because they–understandably–have no faith in better policy. As I wrote in a Democratic Strategist article:

Americans’ distrust of government is deep and poses a fundamental obstacle to progressive reform. …. When only six percent of Americans trust the government to have created any jobs by spending almost one trillion of their dollars, the problem is much deeper than Fox News or the communications strategy of the White House. The underlying relationship between people and their government is fundamentally broken.

Candidate Barack Obama seemed to understand that rhetoric could not change this situation, but engaging the public in the substance of governance would begin to restore the relationship. His administration’s failure to do that has been a deep disappointment to me, but that is an entirely different critique from the one being discussed today.

About Peter

Director of CIRCLE and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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