Friday, September 9, 2011

Stepping Back a Bit (Jobs Speech 2)

I think perhaps a bit of additional explanation is in order on presidential speeches.

When I emphasize that presidential speeches have limited effects, I don't want to overplay the point. One point here is that if I'm talking about the speech, I'm talking about just that: the effects of the speech by itself -- especially the effects of the speech on public opinion, or more broadly on the question of whether a speech can affect Congressional action by changing public opinion which then in turn affects what Congress will do. There's good reason to believe that in that sense presidential speeches have very limited possibilities.

But of course the president did more than just give a speech yesterday; he also offered a new initiative, one that has both legislative and administrative components. And that can certainly matter, regardless of whether the speech has any effect.  So while I understand the impulse to minimize presidential control -- indeed, that's usually where I come down on these things -- it's also possible to overdo it. What got me started on this is what Ezra Klein said:
That got to the essential truth behind the speech: all the president can do is ask Congress to pass his bill. The only direct leverage he has is his ability to make the ideas popular and their refusal unpopular. He can’t make them pass the bill. He can’t pass it himself. He can’t use an executive order. He can propose ideas and use the bully pulpit to force them onto the agenda. After that, it’s up to Congress.
That's I think too strong. It's true that there's nothing Obama can do to force Congress to act. But there's a very large gap between merely putting it on the agenda and forcing them to act. The president certainly can fight for bills he cares about, and he can use all of the many tools at his disposable in that fight -- tools such as vetoes (or threatened vetoes) on Congressional priorities, or appointments, or the use of administrative options.

One of the reasons for presidents to give high-profile speeches, indeed, is to signal to Congress (and to everyone else in the policy-making process) that this is something that's a high priority for him. This is something he intends to fight for, and that he's willing to bargain for. And if that's true -- if Obama is in fact willing to give way on GOP priorities if they're willing to accept some of what he's proposing -- then this thing does in fact have some chance of being enacted. But that's (mostly) an inside game. It's not about barnstorming the nation to convince people to put pressure on their Members of Congress; it's about trying to find some way of getting to a trade that both sides can be happy about (while also finding pressure points that can be used to help push rank-and-file Members to go along). Again, thought of in that way, the function of the speech is mostly to clearly let everyone know that the president intends to be very aggressive in doing all of that.

I should also mention that yet another effect of these high-profile speeches can happen before they're even given. Announcing a high-profile speech that will contain a new legislative program can be an excellent way of focusing the attention of people within the administration on this particular presidential priority. Remember, resistance to the president doesn't just come from Congress; it also comes from executive branch departments and agencies, which for all sorts of reasons (good and bad) have their own agendas and can often win battles with the president. Publicity and deadlines are two weapons the president can use to pressure them to cooperate.

So all in all I don't want to give the impression that what happened yesterday can't be important; it can. It's just that the way that it's important is rarely through enlisting public opinion to force Congress to do stuff; mostly, neither step of that really works. But again, just because the president is not all-powerful doesn't mean that he can't at least potentially wield quite a bit of influence.

16 comments:

  1. I thought it was interesting that the proposal was "urge" FHWA to allow refinancing. That is a clear presidential power. IF the head doesn't agree with you, appoint a real director who will. Done.

    But I'm glad JB is developing a backbone. Speeches don't count, ok. But he can start calling Governors, mayors and everyone else. You can have actual surrogates working the county. You can point out what projects are going to get financed and what a difference that makes. It's called politics, and it's time Mr. Obama learned.

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  2. I'm glad to see JB adding to his commentary, since his prior post on the subject included remarks of the type that leave me, even as a fan of his work, feeling like tearing my hair out.

    Of course, "the speech itself" can't be all that important, but at a certain level that's a truism (or an absurdity) that turns entirely on how one goes about defining and contextualizing "the speech" and whatever argument you intend to make about it.

    In short, a president won't typically attempt to do "something real" without telling us and everyone else about it in broad terms. Any particular speech about killing certain Jihadis doesn't actually kill certain Jihadis, but a military effort to kill certain Jihadis in our system is unlikely if not impossible without a series of speeches, likely including some major signaling presentation, about how dead "we" want certain Jihadis to be.

    Put differently, imagine the situation now and going into 2012 with a passive Obama, brooding silently, occasionally sending out emissaries to whine about Republican irrationality and intransigence, crossing his fingers in the dark or at Camp David hoping that Rick Perry threatens to shoot Social Security recipients (could happen!). So, yes, in my opinion it makes a much more than marginal difference both in terms of electoral politics and in terms of actual policy whether a President is a commanding and energetic figure, with a program, and a narrative, and even the potential to do something rare: Make the system work somewhat rationally on a faster than glacial schedule, in part by putting obstructionists and borderline neo-confederates on notice.

    There may not be much evidence in the poli. sci. sense of that process working in broad terms - "Pres makes logical argument to People, People punish illogical Congress accordingly" - but that's in part because the entire system is designed around heading off those situations that would produce that evidence. If the Rs were more of a mind to compromise, then the Prez could be proving the inadequacy of rhetoric alone to move them on the remaining issues. If they prove willing to compromise this time, or effectively deploy salami-tactics and other methods of heading off a once-in-a-century mofo of all political battles, then the "evidence" will likely turn out to be ambiguous and muddled, two terms that also sometimes describe "compromise," generally but not always viewed as a positive in a democratic system.

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  3. Sounds like this post is a quick backtrack on yesterday's instant analysis:

    Republicans really believe different things than Democrats, and they have the votes to block stuff they don't want. A speech, no matter how good, doesn't really change that.

    And yet we have Boehner and Cantor saying that the proposals merit consideration, and we have muted protestations from the right wing.

    Why is that? Why aren't GOP leaders reacting the same way as they did to every other Obama proposal of the last three years (i.e., rejecting it out of hand)?

    Could it be that House Republicans are beginning to worry a wee bit about re-election? Could it be that they don't want to be tagged all of next year as the anti-jobs party? Could it be that they remember (despite the incessant mocking and disparagement from both sides) that Obama has, time and time again, been able to "speechify" his way out of political trouble?

    Could it be that last night's speech - with its brilliant pairing of conservative/centrist policy proposals with a full-throated defense of liberal values - is another example of that?

    No, a speech won't somehow reverse the GOP's passion for slashing taxes on the wealthy and dismantling the social safety net. But that doesn't matter - the speech has already had its desired effect. It has signaled to Republicans that they must either play ball or suffer the consequences next November.

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  4. What "consequences" next November?

    Obama is a dead man walking. He's moments away from going flatline. Politics follows the law of the jungle. If you're weak, you get killed. Obama is weak.

    In the Congress, I count potentially 12D Senate seats on the bubble, and subject to flip. The House may not show such movement, but there are certainly no signs it's trending Left, not after redistricting for sure.

    There's no real political danger for Obama's opposition. They already have Bailouts, Porkulus, Cap and Tax and ObamaCare already in the bank drawing interest, having paid dividends last November. Now, they just need to let Obama talk, which he very much enjoys, and he'll eventually talk himself right into the political graveyard. They appear to be doing precisely that, giving him the full stage, until such time as decision/voting time nears and they can get what they want.

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  5. Obama is a dead man walking. He's moments away from going flatline.

    And yet he still leads every GOP candidate in 2012 polling. And Democrats still lead in the generic Congressional ballot.

    Keep in mind the Fed - immune to GOP obstructionism - still has ammunition, and is likely to use if it conditions don't improve. Also keep in mind the public is solidly in Obama's camp when it comes to taxes and infrastructure spending.

    So, if you're not impressed with Obama's polling advantage now, just sit tight and wait for the economic pendulum to swing back. At that point, things may start to look (to use Rick Perry's words) "pretty ugly" for the GOP.

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  6. I think this is a very good point, that speeches do wield some influence.

    I am of the view that Obama need's more assertive and aggressive action. In order to win next year's election, in my opinion, he is going to have to show he has a plan to get America moving. It looked as though, he was bullied over the deficit battle and doesn't look like a strong leader at the moment. He is lacking direction, it is being blocked by GOP. As we all know though, Obama's strength is his speeches, so hopefully for his sake, this speech and future ones might help him influence congress.

    Ben

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  7. "And yet he still leads every GOP candidate in 2012 polling. And Democrats still lead in the generic Congressional ballot."

    Wrong on both counts, Andrew. The D's haven't led on the generic congressional ballot for some years now, as I recall. And not that many know the R presidential candidates, but they definitely know Obama, and don't like him. Romney and Perry were both ahead of him in head to head match ups recently. I'm not convinced that Obama can defeat anybody, as he's simply a dead man walking.

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    Keep in mind the Fed - immune to GOP obstructionism - still has ammunition, and is likely to use if it conditions don't improve.

    Bernanke just got a shot over his bow from Perry, who began talking "treason". Bernanke listened, and decided to put QE3 aside for now. He can be attacked viciously in Congress, if he changes his mind. And Obama will feel the heat, if Congress does decide to attack him. The Fed becomes an issue if Obama makes it an issue. The Fed doesn't want to be an issue, and Obama doesn't want them to be an issue. So, they won't be an issue, would be my prediction. They'll stay in their hole.

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    "Also keep in mind the public is solidly in Obama's camp when it comes to taxes and infrastructure spending."

    No, the public isn't solidly in Obama's camp on taxes. The public is solidly in the supply side camp, which is why Obama signed supply side tax cuts last December, and is why the D's went 2 years with total control of government and did not do what Obama blurts out periodically for hard Left consumption, his blather about raising taxes. The Congressional D's know better. Jack taxes, and they will pay the price at the polls. They didn't. They won't. They know better. I think if Obama had any interest in "infrastructure" he woulda made that plain 2 years ago. He doesn't. The "infrastructure" talk is just boob bait for hardcore lefties.

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    So, if you're not impressed with Obama's polling advantage now, just sit tight and wait for the economic pendulum to swing back. At that point, things may start to look (to use Rick Perry's words) "pretty ugly" for the GOP.

    What "polling advantage" does Obama have? I haven't seen numbers this ugly in a looooong time. I'm expecting Obama has a good shot at hitting a historic presidential first term low. And if you're needing the economic pendulum to swing back, you don't do what Obama did the first 2 years of his presidential term. That's how I know the pendulum watch will go unrewarded. It ain't swinging back. He's a dead man walking, and even he knows it now.

    Heck, I think Perry and Romney are both flawed candidates. But they'll both clean Obama's clock. He's just weak and getting weaker.

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  8. "The D's haven't led on the generic congressional ballot for some years now, as I recall."

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/148964/Democrats-Enjoy-Slight-Edge-2012-Congressional-Ballot.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_content=plaintextlink&utm_term=Politics

    Someone who had more faith that an argument with "anonymous" on a political blog might go somewhere might go through each one of the claims and embedded assumptions in the comment that includes the above mis-statement/mis-recollection about the Ds. I'll just suggest that looking at polls other than Rasmussen and getting spin from sources other than FNC might lead to a more fair and balanced set of views.

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  9. Actually, as I mentioned, the D's haven't led on the generic congressional ballot for some years now. And by that, I mean the aggregate of polling showed them down on that generic ballot, fairly consistently, even if some individual polls haven't jibed with that aggregate.



    Only the rookie takes one poll and flaunts it as something useful or meaningful, even a Gallup poll.

    However, there is one poll that many of us find quite important in and of itself, and we held that poll on the first Tuesday last November. You may want to review those results, as many of us find that that poll is quite significant... and accurate. One interpretation of that poll is that the Left is down in the generic ballot. YMMV. ;-)

    Independents began to depart the Left's coalition in Spring 2009, 4-5 months into Obama's term, after Pelosi slammed Cap and Tax through, pretty much. They fell away consistently, and then broke with them after that Christmas Eve 2009 vote on ObamaCare in the US Senate.

    I'd expect the generic ballot to continue to work against the Left, particularly as regards the Senate, where there's still 2/3 of the Obama-voting lefty incumbents who haven't faced the music yet. So some of them will get whacked, if not as many House incumbents this time.

    This is just a poisonous political atmosphere for the Left, and there's really nothing on the horizon that could change that. The Left will be forced to change, it appears... or get whacked again.

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  10. Even if Obama managed to get every part of this proposal through Congress, there's just no way a $450 billion stimulus - much smaller than the previous stimulus, which also wasn't anywhere near enough - is going to raise economic growth to a high enough level to secure his re-election. He just doesn't seem to understand, or care, that the question of economic growth right now is what matters, and everything else is gravy. It doesn't matter whether the Fed is responsible, or Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress are responsible, or Obama's choice of advisers or whatever else you can think of is responsible, unless the economy improves a lot, very soon, Obama is toast no matter what he does.

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  11. This aggregate of polls has the Dems losing their edge in the generic ballot in late 2009, and shows numerous polls in addition to Gallup with a re-gained Dem advantage, along with a general narrowing trend (that also tends to coincide with the decline in the Tea Party's image).

    http://polltracker.talkingpointsmemo.com/contests/us-cong-generic-ballot

    Even Rasmussen showed the Dems still leading the congressional ballot as of June 2009. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/mood_of_america/generic_congressional_ballot

    Neither set of results justifies the statement "the D's haven't led on the generic congressional ballot for some years now," which implies some extended period of clear R ascendancy well beyond 1 - 2 years.

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  12. No, "some years" means basically since Independents began fleeing the Left in Spring 2009, as mentioned, after Pelosi rammed through that Cap and Tax fiasco, and ensured that the House was gonna flip a year and a half later.

    ObamaCare made election 2010 a historic blowout, as we know, but the House was flipping the instant Pelosi whipped that Cap and Tax vote earlier that Spring.

    That vote, following the Bailouts and Porkulus votes, ensured the Left would go down in the generic ballot, and stay down a while, which ObamaCare only cemented.

    And no, the Left still hasn't climbed out of that hole, transient data points notwithstanding. Led by Obama, they are headed for another slaughter in November 2012, and show no signs of changing course. Their opposition won't either, as there's no need. The data says they should hold course, and demand what it is they want anyway, because that's what the People want.

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  13. Real Clear Politics has the D's ahead right now on their aggregation of generic Congressional polls since July. I am not expert enough to know if there is an ideological tilt to their aggregation - the site certainly leans left in its analysis - but it does include Rasmussen, which is usually pretty far right.

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/generic_congressional_vote-2170.html

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  14. It's a good thing the Anon posters are commenting here, or we wouldn't have any feedback from the conservative/Republican side. They've been strangely silent. I think Obama caught them off-guard.

    I think the speech was good tactically, since Obama is grabbing some of the Republican talking points out of their hands, particularly tax cuts/regulation/support for small business job creators.

    The speech may have been great politically, but economically I don't think this bill or any government program can do much, certainly not enough to make it worth nearly half a trillion dollars. But the proposal is designed to be pruned. Hopefully, we'll end up with the best $150 billion of it, and get some decent results for not too much cost.

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  15. How does a weak politician catch anybody "off guard"? I'd assume everybody by now understands that Obama is a dead man walking , and will be flailing away disjointedly. Signing onto the Bush Tax Cuts, then going all in on tax increases... that sorta wild flailing is to be expected from a weak politician, especially one so inexperienced and unqualified.

    Obama is a force multiplier for his opposition, as Pelosi and Obama together were last year. Pelosi's been swept down the memory hole, but Obama insists on taking center stage, and his opposition seems to be clever enough to want him to jump right up there and help them multiply their forces. They'd probably even pay for the greek columns, if Obama would put 'em up. It'd be foolish not to recognize political calculus in what's happening. I'd always recommend letting an Obama hang himself... as it's far more efficient.

    No need for Obama's opposition to confront him openly, as the 12 vulnerable Senate D's will do that for them. They have no interest in going down with this guy, and will write him off in a heartbeat. That's just politics. Once you're weak, and a dead man walking, it's your buddies who deliver the coupe de grace. They got a sweet gig, remember. Why should they pay the price for Obama's incompetence and failures?

    Boehner has plenty of golf to play, and plenty of scotch to drink, and he seems to understand how all this works, and that golfing and drinking are more politically productive uses of his time than yammering with Obama. You could tell that he came to that conclusion late in that debt ceiling game, and when he declined to respond to Obama's speechifying the other night. Obama hasn't delivered a bill, and won't for a week or 2. Obama's opposition are on to this empty suit's game, now. He's empty, and failing. In that environment, smart politics says you either ignore the guy or you roll the guy, there is no need to do anything other than that. Then you just stand back and watch the guy's own allies take him down. Then you go play golf.

    Obama went away to Martha's Vineyard for a good long rest, after telling us how horrible things were getting to be, and that he'd have a great new plan available, after he finished his rest. Nobody's seen that plan yet. This clueless neophyte can't continue to score these own goals, and expect to be taken seriously, certainly not by those 12 vulnerable D senators.

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  16. "That got to the essential truth behind the speech: all the president can do is ask Congress to pass his bill. The only direct leverage he has is his ability to make the ideas popular and their refusal unpopular. He can’t make them pass the bill. He can’t pass it himself. He can’t use an executive order. He can propose ideas and use the bully pulpit to force them onto the agenda. After that, it’s up to Congress."

    REALLY? Sure he can't just pass a bill but he can veto bills. He can play hardball just like the republicans if he chooses. And he can verbally abuse them every day if he wishes. This is all we're asking for......a little bit of fight. Actually a lot of fight.......but a little bit to start with is ok for now.

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