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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

President Obama the Policy Wonk

It is well known that the issues that drive debate in our country are selected by news anchors at all of the major stations.  For example, for two + months, we had to endure unending news coverage about the debt ceiling.   There was no attention paid to job creation, to the war in Libya, or to any other events that had the misfortune of being relevant during the debate over the debt ceiling.  In fact, the economy was relevant only to the extent of what would happen if the U.S. defaulted on its debt.  And this was true despite the fact that we have record unemployment in this country, which has now become the focal point since the debt ceiling controversy is over.     

Because the 24 hour news cycle drives the level of interest in issues, candidates, and events, it is really important for politicians to own the debate.  Owning the debate means creating a narrative that the politician can sell to the media who can then sell it to the public.  The Obama administration, at least since the 2010 midterm elections, has not owned the debate.  Unlike Barack Obama the candidate, President Obama has had a difficult time creating a coherent narrative that can sell his policies to the public.  I think that part of the problem is that President Obama tries to add rationality and nuance to an issue that most people only want to see at a macro level.  Someone who has been unemployed for over a year, for example, could care less about extending the Bush tax cuts or cutting the payroll taxes.  Of course these things affect everyone and are really important, but in reality, all this person wants or cares about is getting a job.  Similarly, the average American does not care that the price of gas is controlled by the oil companies and OPEC, all this person knows is that when gas is $4.00 a gallon, then he or she cannot afford to drive to work.  

The point is that when someone like Michelle Bachmann says that her administration can get gas down to $2.00 a gallon, these statements find an audience and therefore a place in the 24 hour news cycle, even if they are ridiculous and have no basis in reality.  President Obama has relinquished his place in the 24 hour news cycle because he tries to sell policy and not a narrative.  Even if he is right about his policies and that, over time, they will better the economy, the average American wants to hear a story about what those policies mean in real time.  The narrative allows Michelle Bachmann to get the Joe the Plumber’s vote by selling him $2.00 gas without any explanation about how such a feat would be accomplished.  Joe doesn't care, he just wants to be able to drive to work.  President Obama loses votes (and therefore the media's attention) because he tries to sell policies such as getting rid of tax breaks for oil companies because gas is $4.00 a gallon.  Although this may be good policy, it does nothing for Joe the Plumber, who doesn’t have a job and couldn’t afford to drive to work if he had one. 

So my advice to the president is actually pretty simple: Remember your audience.  Your audience is not academics or the wealthy or individuals who have thrived in the last few years.  It is those who have lost the most.     


Posted by Franita Tolson on August 23, 2011 at 10:26 AM | Permalink


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Joe, you're technically correct about his health care plan, but you're wrong on the bigger picture. The Senate and House had to pick up the details, BECAUSE OBAMA INTENTIONALLY LEFT THOSE TO CONGRESS, except that he was very clear in communicating with the relevant parties what that bill should look like (e.g., no mandate). As far as whether or not policy wonks supported it, yes, some did on the whole, but this was entirely on the basis of the idea that half a loaf of moldy bread is better than nothing for a starving man. I don't think there exists an actual expert on health care reform who would tell you privately and off the record that they liked either where Obama started on health care or where he ended up.

As far as FDR having flawed legislation, that's really beside the point. (And I would argue that, while no legislation is perfect, FDR's legislative agenda showed that he "got it" much more so than Obama's legislative agenda (and you can again quibble with this on the point that Congress technically sets the legislative agenda, but in fact as we all know the President is supposed to set the agenda for his party in this country's modern history). FDR gave us enormous reforms of banking, housing, retirement, etc. Obama has given us one stimulus bill that was half what his own advisors thought was necessary and one that was heavily watered down with tax cuts designed to win over Republican votes (which it did not), a Dodd-Frank Act that ran significantly to the Main Street side of where Obama wanted it (to the extent that DFA is heavily criticized today, it is far more defensible than where Obama's Treasury wanted it), and a health care bill that is barely defensible on policy ground. The common thread in all three bills is that the design of them was an open tent, where all major lobbying groups, Rs, and Ds, were meant to participate equally in the input.

So to repeat, no way do I think Obama is a policy wonk (nor do any of his close advisors); he is a process wonk who thinks that something akin to the Socratic method and an inclusive process will produce the right policy outcome (which means he can and has been rolled on policy issues, and this will happen again).

Posted by: Boourns | Aug 28, 2011 4:14:05 PM

unemployment benefits, that is

Posted by: Joe | Aug 27, 2011 9:29:37 AM

"His health care plan"

The actual product was a result of the U.S. Senate formulating a policy and the House supplying a few (well 160 or so pages worth) of edits. Various "policy wonks" DID support it.

And, FDR's policies had "gaping holes" in them too, since after all LBJ/Congress had to make major additions to them. Special interests always get theirs; there is always some sort of compromise necessary. Not sure what is unique about the ACA in this respect. The net result is always limited reform, hopefully in the right direction.

The right/left wing stereotypes are both exaggerated. Obama's inability to do enough (for whatever reason) alone doesn't tell me that he seems "mostly unaware" of the problem. The average Joe can put his 23 year old on his health insurance, has more credit card protections, his gay friends have more rights, might have had more unemployment, won't be cut off for pre-existing conditions etc. He struggles through, sees how the Republicans are really bad and realizes if one side doesn't share, it really really makes it hard to govern. If he is actually realistic about the power of the President, he is a bit less stereotypical.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 27, 2011 9:28:46 AM

I disagree with both sides being presented here. The problem is that Obama is NOT a policy wonk, he is a kumbaya guy who thinks it's more important to make everyone feel like they're part of the process than to make good policy. His health care plan, his stimulus plan, his balanced budget plan, his debt ceiling compromise, etc... None of these were actually designed to be GOOD policy, they were designed to be inclusive policy, which could garner Republican support. True policy wonks hated all of these proposals, both as they were initially proposed and especially as they evolved in negotiations with the GOP. Left and center wonks hated them because they had these huge gaping holes in them (hey, we're trying to make health care universal and cheaper; let's throw in a huge subsidy for Big Pharma and Big HMO! uh oh, we need to stimulate the economy, let's make the stimulus half the size our advisors say it should be, and also, let's make 40% of it tax cuts that have de minimus stimulus effect!)

As far as I can tell, it's a flawed attempt to mirror the perceived successes of the Clinton years: compromise, coopt some of the other side's thunder, move to the "center" and govern popularly.

This of course ignores two key changes since the 1990s: 1) the GOP leadership has become even more inflexible, and is so far to the right/libertarian extreme that whatever compromises they'd agree to are, to the rest of us, horrible horrible policy; and 2) we are facing an economic and financial crisis that looks to be on the level of the Great Depression (but since we have adopted loose monetary policy and a stimulus (flawed as it was, better than nothing or austerity), something on the order of Japan's lost decade.

As such, Obama continually ends up with policy that is hated by policy wonks on both sides of the equation (libertarians hate it because it's not simply tax cuts and deregulation; everyone else hates it because it's watered down piss). At the same time, the average Joe is upset because the economy sucks, and Congress and Obama are focused on the budget deficit (so they either are upset because they think Obama is profligate (Fox News) or because they are wondering wtf Obama's head is, because "real" unemployment (unemployed + underemployed + those who've stopped looking for work) is threatening to hit Great Depression levels, and it's basically really really hard to find and hold on to a job right now (let alone the 2 jobs that most Americans need to pay their household expenses and debt servicing costs).

So no, it's not messaging. It's the fact that from the perspective of right-wing Joe, Obama is a flaming socialist and the economy sucks; from the perspective of left-wing Joe, Obama is a toolbox who continues to sell out to the GOP and the economy sucks; and from the perspective of average Joe (who neither watches Fox News nor MSNBC), Obama seems to be mostly unaware of the severity of this recession (since most Americans haven't directly felt the effects of the stimulus, which went largely to tax cuts and to state/local govt grants) and the economy sucks.

Posted by: Boourns | Aug 24, 2011 7:13:24 PM

I certainly see your point, and it's a valid one, no doubt, but mine is that it doesn't seem prudent to ignore the underlying substance of the policies when pitching them, especially when, well, they haven't worked.

To illustrate it more clearly, let me draw out a distinction: that of salesman and reporter. As a candidate, Obama could operate in full salesman mode: he could promise outcomes without delving too far into specifics. And he had the added advantage of throwing in a dash of reporter, noting Bush's failures when relevant, which buttressed his promises.

But now he's had three years to build up a track record. So when he tries to say "My administration will create jobs," he has to come up with specifics and distinguish the past three years of failure, because the Republicans will be reporting on (and almost certainly embellishing) those failures while campaigning.

It seems to me that he'd be better off recognizing the past failures, reporting them, and changing directions rather than making more non-specific promises to people who are now less primed to buy into them. Doing so would preempt the Republicans' criticisms, come off as honest and forthright, and might actually help the economy (assuming he makes the right changes). The last is the most important: results will trump rhetoric.

Posted by: Ryan | Aug 24, 2011 5:57:58 PM

Ryan: No, I haven't considered that President Obama might be wrong on policy. After all, I am a Democrat and we don't question our leader. And while I am clearly joking, that does seem to be the thrust of at least the first part of your argument.

In reality, President Obama has gotten significant pushback from "the Left" because of his policies, including accusations that he has ignored his base in articulating said policies. So to say that those on the Left ignores that some his policies may be wrongheaded, that is just incorrect. In fact, many on the Left would say that President Obama's economic policy has been very Republican recently(see Bush tax break extension, the debt ceiling agreement to name a few examples).

While I see your point that reasonable minds can disagree about which economic policy will get this country back on track, lets not pretend that the bailout passed with only Democratic support, or that there is universal support for the Republicans' trickle down/low tax theory. It is very possible (read: likely) that all of the politicians, including President Obama and John Boehner, are wrong to some extent about how to solve the problems with the economy.

In any event, President Obama receives criticism from all corners. My point is that the public might be better able to understand and then reject/accept his policies on the merits if he discusses it from the vantage point of how these policies will affect their lives.

Posted by: Franita Tolson | Aug 24, 2011 4:29:32 PM

It seems to be a pretty well-accepted notion on the Left that Obama's problems are not with his policies but with his messaging. Have you considered that maybe he's just wrong or ill-informed on economic issues? For example, during the debt ceiling debate he gave a national speech where he said, "There was less money coming in, so we had to spend even more." Now, this claim may fly in the Ivory Tower or the pages of the New York Times, but it probably doesn't make much sense to people actually going through these problems. Indeed, if you're laid off from your job you would probably cut back and try to make ends meet, not take out another line of credit to buy a Ferrari.

And on the gas issue, it seems you want it both ways: Obama should get to demonize the evil oil companies by claiming they set the price of gas (which is wrong, since they're only one side of the supply/demand coin) while simultaneously getting to claim that increasing taxes on these companies won't encourage them to pass that tax on to Joe the Plumber.

Posted by: Ryan | Aug 24, 2011 3:53:04 PM

Voted for Obama: This might not settle the disagreement between us, but I am specifically referring to President's Obama rhetoric since he gained office, and in particular, since the 2010 midterms. I agree that Candidate Obama focused on very vague notions of hope and change, but unlike his current message, at least it was a coherent and struck a cord with voters. I can also agree that President Obama has pursued policies that aren't pressing issues to voters. But I think that when President Obama does talk about the policies that matter to voters, it is not in a narrative that resonates with the public. In my opinion, that is a huge obstacle in the way of President Obama's path to reelection. I think that he is too busy trying to sell the details instead of focusing on outcomes.

Also, I was using Joe the Plumber as a reference for the average American, and was not really referencing the actual Joe the Plumber and his specific policy preferences. I guess I should have said Mike the Electrician or something like that, but I wanted to use a reference point that most people can relate to and are familiar with.

Posted by: Franita Tolson | Aug 23, 2011 2:41:28 PM

I have sympathy for the president, but can't agree with your analysis. Actually, Joe the Plumber wanted to grow small businesses. Candidate-Obama disagreed, saying that he'd rather "share the wealth." Only more recently has President Obama has pivoted back to Joe's "grow businesses" meme. I don't think voters believe that the President has put job growth first.

Candidate-Obama principally ran on very vague notions of "hope" and "change," not nuanced policy arguments. Several of his specific promises were clearly unattainable anyway. Look at the recent NYT reporting about the green jobs policies, which have been massive failures.

The problem isn't that the President is a policy wonk. It's that the policies he pursued aren't the ones that matter to voters.

Posted by: voted for obama | Aug 23, 2011 2:27:25 PM

You are, of course, entitled to hold whatever views that you want about the current Administration, but try to see my point. It is not that people are not smart enough to grasp policy, it is that they don't want to (and probably should not have to). All they care about is the far bigger issues of creating jobs and repairing the economy, and less about how we actually achieve these things.

Posted by: Franita Tolson | Aug 23, 2011 1:31:31 PM

I think that part of the problem is that President Obama tries to add rationality and nuance to an issue that most people only want to see at a macro level.

Oh, that's it! He is just so darn smart that the simple folks just don't grasp his superior intellect.

I think you give him far too much credit. I'm more inclined to think he is ineffective because he is in way over his head and he doesn't really know what he is doing.

For example, Joe Biden is the Vice President of the United States.

Posted by: anymouse | Aug 23, 2011 12:07:59 PM

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