Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Voices Carry

Nate Silver had a interesting comment yesterday:
Observation: Occupy has had more success in "shifting the narrative" than either (i) Obama or (ii) the "Professional Left".
See also a more detailed case for this from David Dayen. I'm mostly interested in the first part of that. I'm not completely certain he's right; note that talk about deficits seems to have faded severely ever since the president started talking up his jobs bill nonstop. But it's at least plausibly true, right?

The point that it suggests has to do with the real limits on the president's ability to focus elite (or mass) conversation.

Now, in some ways the bully pulpit is both real and quite powerful. If presidents have something they want everyone to be thinking about and talking about, they are far more able to do it than anyone else in the political system. It's not even close; the president can, if its important enough to him, still get carried live on the broadcast networks -- and he frequently gets covered live on the cable nets. He has a whole press corps assigned to him, and a large staff who can amplify and spin his message, along with a party apparatus and same-party politicians and operatives who are often happy to stick to the message he chooses. So if the president really wants to drive attention to something, he has the means to do it.

It's also true that among insiders, presidential mentions of an issue can have real consequences, because it signals that the president cares about it. So for example if the Senate is considering taking up a nominee, then a presidential mention might influence which nominee it will confirm.

However, there are real limits to all of this. You might have seen Elisabeth Rosenthal's essay in the Sunday NYT on why climate change has largely disappeared as an issue. And no question, presidential rhetorical inattention is a part of that. Had Obama decided to devote the attention to global warming that he's put into the economy this year, we can be fairly certain that her article would never have been written. But while presidential attention to climate would surely have "shifted the narrative," it's very unlikely that it could have produced legislative success. Nor is there any guarantee that the presidential attention, and therefore press attention, would have produced more people who agreed with him -- indeed, there is research that suggests presidential attention produces polarized public opinion. And there are real opportunity costs, too; a president focused on climate can't be also a president rhetorically focused on jobs. And there's another cost, too. A president focused on an issue on which he can't get results may hurt his reputation and prestige. After all, part of the advantage for Obama in his current jobs focus is how popular his positions are, both on what to do and how to pay for it.

The point is that while presidents certainly can affect what people are talking about, they need to make strategic choices -- and after all, their goals are usually to either change policy or to get re-elected, not to affect what people are talking about. So while drawing attention to a neglected issue is certainly a useful thing for activists to do (although not necessarily more useful than nominating candidates dedicated to that issue), presidents just have other things that usually take priority.


  1. Here's a question that occurred to me as I was reading your post: Is it possible Obama is making a strategic mistake by devoting his attention to the economy right now? That sounds like a strange question, but when you consider that the economy has a strong chance of ending his presidency, and that he's unlikely to get anything that will dramatically improve the economy past Congress, could he have anything to gain by pursuing a Democratic version of the wedge strategy, devoting his attention to a largely symbolic issue to distract voters from the economic crisis? I'm not saying I'd agree with such a strategy, and I happen to think what he's doing now with the jobs bill is probably his best bet both politically and policy-wise. But it has occurred to me that his focus on the country's economic crisis may simply have the effect of calling greater attention to his biggest political weakness.

  2. Kylo: good question, but what's the alternative? Ignoring a bad economy (a la Bush the Father) is also a bad idea. And it's not like it's not question #1, 2 and 3 in the pressers.

    A very valid question, but I'm just not sure whether the answer isn't that it's not a strategic mistake in the same sense that defending the Alamo wasn't: the battle was lost, but it was possibly the best of the collection of strategies, all of which involved losing.

  3. Obama is in a difficult position, but he's partially responsible for it. He has let issues drift too often. That's going to make it especially hard for him to rebuild credibility. I doubt that there's a surefire way for him to do that. Some mistakes can't be fixed without a lot of skill or luck

  4. JB, take a big breath. Just admit Obama has been at best a disappointment, and if he can't win relection a failure.

    And a huge part of it is communications. It's not that Obama isn't saying thing -- you've made a lot of good catches that way. It is nobody is listening.

    Turns out "leading from behind" mean nobody listens when you talk.


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