I sort of buried my first comments about this at the bottom of a post last week, but I think it's a topic worth revisiting and expanding on, because it leads to a fairly important question: given all that I've said about how the presidency has only limited powers (and see, too, Brendan Nyhan's comments), what's an activist to do?
What brings this up for me today is a post by Scott Payne taking issue with Andrew Sullivan's suggestion that liberal critics of the president show a bit of patience with him. This gets me to the distinction I drew last week between analysts and advocates. Whether it's the death (for now) of the public option, or moderation in the banking bill, or detention policies, the questions about "what happened" are very different from the questions about "what should we do." In general, analysts are going to be interested in the former, activists in the latter. And analysts -- especially academic analysts -- are sometimes going to be satisfied with not knowing. Sometimes, it's good enough to say that we'll have to wait for more evidence to really get the full story, even if that means waiting for books to come out, or even for papers to be declassified. For an honest analyst, "I don't know" is always the best answer if, in fact, you don't know.
Advocates, however, need to know what to do, and "I don't know" can't be the end of it. So even if an honest advocate realizes that the reach of the White House is limited, it still may be the case that the best move is to urge the White House to take action. For the liberal advocate, it may not matter whether Obama cut the best deal available or if he actively opposed liberal interests; either way, the best move may be to criticize the results.
Notice I said it "may" be the best move. And that's where smart advocates will listen to smart analysts. Smart advocates need to know that presidents cannot rule by either fiat or magic wand. They need to assess the politics of various issues honestly, fully understanding how the political system works, before they choose which action to take. Because the last thing that smart advocates want is for their efforts to be counterproductive.
Sometimes, that's going to create difficult choices. Let's say, for example, that it's unclear whether a particular policy frustration is caused by (1) the president's actual opposition; (2) the president's calculation that the electoral costs of pursuing the policy are too high; (3) the actual opposition of marginal Senators; or (4) marginal Senators' calculations about the electoral costs of supporting the policy. What should an advocate do? I don't know! Tell me a bit more. Is the advocate interested in multiple issues, or just the single issue; if the former, she might be far more inclined to accept the political judgment of professional pols than if she only cares about one issue (because those pols may be in a better position to assess the complexity of how one issue affects another). What kinds of leverage do advocates have about the Senators who may be in question? Is the issue one around which it is relatively easy to rally visible support? Does the issue poll well? What do we know about the opposition? Are there already deals in place over this issue, and if so what gains (if any) would be put at risk by upsetting those deals? That's just a taste of what advocates need to think about before deciding on a course of action.
If that's too abstract...here's a good example. The White House is currently floating a compromise on climate/energy, a cap-and-trade element including only utilities. Now, what should environmentalists do? Should they embrace this as the best possible deal? Reject it, because it's worse than nothing? Reject it, because it's worse than what they'll get if they continue to push for a comprehensive bill? I don't know. It requires a lot of knowledge -- policy knowledge, about the substance of the available alternatives, and political knowledge, about the chances of the compromise winning, the chances of something better winning, the chances of no bill at all. And some strategic calculation: perhaps advocates are better off pushing for a better bill even if they would actually be pleased with the compromise, because pushing hard for the best bill possible might help in the bargaining. But perhaps not; perhaps rejecting the compromise leads to no bill at all (which, if advocates actually favor a limited bill, would be a disaster).
Consider another example: the fight over the public option. Here, one of the key things that advocates needed to understand was that the version of the public option that had a realistic chance of getting to 60 votes was, in the view of policy analysts, of little more than symbolic importance. The "robust" version was, again according to policy analysts, more significant, but still quite limited -- and the clear politics of the situation was that the "robust" public option was far less popular among marginal Democrats than the symbolic version (should it have been? I don't know, but it was, and that meant it would have taken additional resources to do something about it, very likely more than were available to anyone involved). Effective advocates needed to know the rules about reconciliation, and about Senate voting procedures, and House voting procedures...lots of stuff like that -- and the actual, real, rules, not wishful thinking about the rules.
The first point here is that these are actually pretty tricky questions. The second point would be that any additional understanding of how the political system actually works is probably pretty helpful in answering these questions; that suggests that advocates should seek out what analysts can tell them (or, have their own analytic side).
I can suggest a couple of things. If one believes that the only reason a policy is not enacted must be that the president did not favor it, then one is going to make a lot of poor choices in deciding how to advocate for policies. Indeed, the hallmark of the American system of government is that it's easy to stop policy change. That certainly does not mean that one should never criticize the president! Sometimes, that's going to be the best way to place pressure. All it means is that criticisms (or support) of the president should be based on knowledge, and good judgment.
I would also say that for those who care about multiple issues, and for whom most of those issues break along party lines (and that's the majority of political activists): it's worth keeping an eye on the big picture. That means, more often than not, keeping an eye on the next election cycle(s). Thinking back to health care...I think it's highly likely that had Harold Ford, Bruce Lunsford, and Ronnie Musgrove been in the Senate instead of Bob Corker, Mitch McConnell, and Roger Wicker (to pick three close races from the last two election cycles), I think a significantly more liberal bill would have been produced, even if all three joined the Ben Nelson caucus (if instead Democrats had won twice in Maine and in Florida in 2004, well, even better for them). Now, it's also the case that politicians are notoriously scared of their own shadows, and mistakenly believe that a single vote will doom them for reelection; advocates need to know that electorates are not so easily spooked -- and that pols are.
So, to pick another example: I don't think we know the full story behind Barack Obama's policies on detention, civil liberties, and other similar issues. If you ask me as an analyst whether he is the prime actor on those policies, or has compromised with (or been defeated by) various other key players, I wouldn't know the answer. If you're not happy with "his" policies, however, I'd say that it absolutely is the right call to criticize him -- it's a lot more likely to be effective than criticizing faceless bureaucrats who will never need to go before an electorate, and waiting until we know the full story leads only to inaction. And exert as much pressure as you can in party primaries, and fight for the party that better reflects the policies you favor in November. Even if they only somewhat better reflect your policies. Because frustration aside -- and if you're going to be an advocate in a Madisonian system, in a polity with over 300 million citizens, you're going to have a whole lot of frustration, and you're going to want to be ready for it and learn not to act based on frustration instead of reason -- American politics is incremental, and the worst thing you can do is throw up your hands and pretend that there's no difference between the parties, or that "punishing" pols you think betrayed you is more important than getting the most lopsided majorities you can muster.