Friday, August 7, 2009

Where It's At

Here's a good example of why the things that journalists do often yield poor results.

Slate's John Dickerson is, I think a good reporter -- that is, as far as I can tell, he's good at finding out stuff.

But without knowing which stuff matters, and how, the reporting doesn't do much good.

Dickerson's story focuses almost exclusively on Obama's public speaking abilities, on crafting and delivering messages. Dickerson's thesis is that Obama is a slow but steady learner, which explain his difficulties and triumphs in the campaign as well as his current difficulties selling the health bill: For Dickerson, "The question is how Obama finds this focus, and his voice, on health care."

The problem is that while I wouldn't say that the fancy speeches and the struggles to frame things just so are totally irrelevant, they are rarely all that important. For the general election campaign, for example, most research shows that the campaign itself -- all of it -- is not nearly as important as structural factors such as the condition of the economy and voter attitudes toward the sitting president.

And campaigns are fairly straightforward. Campaigns do things, the world is the way it is, and eventually voters make choices. Legislation is far more complicated. Citizens, when they're not voters, may or may not ever make choices; they may not even have any idea what they're talking about. Even if they're willing to answer questions from pollsters. Then the relationship between how citizens-at-large think about things (if they do actually think about things at all) and what happens in Congress is murky at best. So the real story about health care has a lot more to do with things like the composition of Congress (and beyond that the composition of certain committees), and the array of organized interests on both sides, and strategies and tactics and incentives those various interests and politicians have. Public opinion may have something to do with that, and presidential actions may have something to do with public opinion, but it just isn't central to the story.

Moreover, the president doesn't, and can't, control everything. Take for example the current round of protests at Congressional town hall meetings. Are those the result of Obama's failure to "find his voice" on health care? Not at all. Regardless of Obama's actions, some 10-15% of the electorate is going to oppose him. That was true back in April when the Tea Party activists were dismissed as a hopeless fringe, and it's true now. The dissent hasn't changed; what's changed is that the press corps, reading polls that show the president's approval ratings sagging a bit and seeing legislation moving slowly on the Hill, are ready to interpret the same signal (sharp protest from one group of Obama opponents) totally differently. Then, they were the lunatic fringe; now, they're an effect of Obama's failure. But the reality is that they have nothing to do with Obama at all; if, say, Clinton or Edwards or Richardson or Biden was president, and if the issue was climate change or the economy or Iraq, it's safe to predict that basically the same crowd would be up in arms. They aren't upset because this particular president is pushing this particular issue this particular way; they're upset because they're on the other side of a partisan divide.

(The same is true, of course, of Republican presidents and Democratic dissent, although with somewhat different styles).

Sure, what candidates and what presidents do and say can matter to public opinion. On the margins. And public opinion certainly affect the outcomes of elections, and can even directly affect legislation. On the margins.

The real story is somewhere else. Some reporters are helping us understand it. Some, alas, are not.

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