Monday, September 27, 2010

Presidents Act on Party Priorities

(See Update below)

Via a nice tweet from Brendan Nyhan, I see that Jay Cost is continuing to try to link the Democrats' problems (which are, of course, very real) to their decision to act on health care reform:
Rather than focus on doing what the voters elected them to do, they instead focused on a longstanding ideological goal of the party elite. On the other hand, if  [...] Obama had focused on restoring the economy - just as Franklin Roosevelt did in the historic 73rd Congress of 1933-34 - they might still be set for losses, but I think they would have been greatly mitigated, as at least they could claim they did everything that could be done to restore the economy to health.  Similarly, if FDR had decided to pursue the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act rather than stabilizing the economy during the First New Deal, I think the Democrats would have suffered serious losses in the 1934 midterm.  Instead, FDR wisely saved those sorts of reforms for later years.
That's all very well and good, except for two things.  First,  the big difference between FDR 1934 and BHO 2010 isn't whether they focused on the economy -- it's how successful they were.  If the economy was growing at a rapid pace now, as it was during Roosevelt's first two years, then GOP attacks on Obama's main economic actions (the stimulus, the auto bailout, the rest of administering TARP) would be entirely ineffective.  Now, there are lots of reasons why the economy grew more in 1933-1934 than it did over the last two years, only some of which have anything to do with actual policies of the president.  But I think it's impossible to make a case that Obama ignored the economy [see Update below].

Yes, Cost might say, but health care distracted from Obama's message or image of focusing on the economy, while FDR was smart enough to ignore distracting party issues.  But that's not true!  In fact, what the Democrats did as soon as the took office was to launch a major campaign on a social issue that had nothing to do with the economy at all but everything to do with pleasing their urban constituencies.  That's right, one of the very first bills that Roosevelt signed, just days into his presidency, was the repeal of prohibition (in legislative form; passing the 21st Amendment took longer the rest of the year, and of course didn't require presidential action, but was still a case of the Democratic Party focusing on fulfilling a non-economic plank in their party platform.  Oh, and if that's not good enough...guess what else the 73rd Congress did?  How about: gun control

Of course, repeal of prohibition was presumably a lot more popular than health care reform (I have no idea how popular machine gun regulation may have been) -- but the ACA would, I believe, be a lot more popular if the economy was growing and Obama was generally more popular.  Cost's continuing theme has been that the unpopularity of health care reform is hurting Obama and the Democrats, but as I've said I think the evidence is stronger that it's the other way around. 

More Nyhan's tweet said a lot more concisely than I'm capable of, presidents try to enact their party's platform.  They have to.  Ignoring party priorities is a sure road to disaster for any president.  Of course, that doesn't mean that they never disagree with their party -- see Obama on civil liberties issues -- or that they're always successful in implementing party plans, as Obama has been unsuccessful on climate/energy so far.  Had Obama, however, said in January 2009 that he was going to put off health care and climate, he would have immediately faced a serious revolt from his own party, and might not have even managed to get anything passed through Congress -- and he'd probably now be looking at one or more liberal Senators or governors starting to think that Iowa and New Hampshire are great states to get to know better.  Or, even worse, if he had abandoned health care reform after the August Crazy of 2009 despite having the votes in Congress to pass it, he would have severely injured his reputation, with all sorts of costs down the road.  Presidents do have some ability to manage the party agenda.  If Obama had chosen to emphasize climate instead of health care, Democrats would have gone along...although there's a good chance that neither would have passed, which certainly wouldn't have helped keep rank-and-file Dems happy going into the midterm elections.  To fully reject action on Democratic priorities despite the largest Congressional majorities in a generation?  No president would do that, and no president could do that and retain support of his party.

[Update: see Jay Cost's interesting response below, and my response to him.  I think he may be right that I overstated my description of his position...he certainly hasn't claimed that Obama ignored the economy, just that he and the Dems focused on health care instead of the economy, which isn't quite the same thing, although I disagree about whether he's right about it.]


  1. Moreover, the "economy vs. health care" thing is a false dichotomy. Remember all those warnings that Obama was taking over "1/8th" of the economy with the ACA? And just last week, Robert Reich posited that no further stimulus will be enough, the only that's really going to get the economy going again is to strengthen and secure the middle class (in typical Reich-ian fashion, he meant at the expense of the upper class, but there might be another way, I dunno). The ACA is an initial, albeit halting, step toward doing just that. Maybe it won't work, but Obama was clearly pushing HCR based on the economic benefits.

  2. Is it even worth pushing back against this stuff, beyond simply recording for the record what BS it is? So long as the economy is sucky the polls will also be sucky (for Dems), and whining about Obama will be an easy sale for pundits.

    Admitting that we sort of set ourselves up for this (at least I did) by tacitly expecting a replay of 1933-34. The Depression through 1932 was SO severe that it pretty much did what Andrew Mellon said, liquidated everyone, and in the process also cleaned up most of the late 20s excess, and FDR was the beneficiary.

    Obama, like FDR, arguably prevented a total economic meltdown, but the crap is still getting flushed out of the system, hence no vigorous rebound.

  3. Professor Bernstein,

    You have hit on the core of our disagreement - I think that health care reform has hurt the President, you think it has not - but with due respect I don't think you have ascribed to me positions that I have never held.

    I have never agued, nor even implied:
    (a) "Presidents" do not "try to enact their party's platform." Specifically, FDR "ignored" his party (!).
    (b) "Obama ignored the economy."

    I think it is appropriate that we not criticize strawman versions of each other's arguments. Here is a summary of my position: President Obama made a strategic error in pursuing health care reform during 2009/10 while the economy was still languishing. His emphasis should have instead focused more on economic recovery. This need not have been to the exclusion of "the Democratic party's platform" (depending on how we define that term), nor for that matter would I have expected it to be.

    Additionally, I think some clarification on the 1933-34 period is appropriate. I would assert the following:
    (a) Economic growth was very robust in 1933-34, as you point out, but private sector employment was still exceedingly weak by the time of the 1934 midterm election.
    (b) The 73rd Congress of 1933-34 was a very active one that focused on a large number of items, but its emphasis was overwhelmingly on stabilizing the economy.

    These are not mere historical quibbles, but instead relate to my broader point in the following way. I would argue that the Democrats in 1934 beat historical trends despite continued weakness in the economy because of broad public approval of the First New Deal, which *focused* on work programs, poor relief, regulation of the private-sector institutions deemed responsible for the collapse, and of course national planning to stabilize the economy. Conversely, the 111th Congress has not focused on economic recovery, and instead has spent most of its energy on an unpopular health care bill, leaving the Democratic party of 2010 more vulnerable to economic-based criticisms from Republicans than the party of 1934.

    Of course, I do not expect you to agree with these assertions. My point is merely to clarify where I am coming from.

    Regarding our continuing disagreement on the essential issue here, it seems to me there is a good critical test of our respective hypotheses, and that is a post-election regression analysis that predicts Democratic share of the vote by district via a number of obvious structural metrics (tenure in office, incumbency, PVI, etc) as well as votes in favor of health care reform. A statistically significant, negative share of the vote would strongly suggest that health care reform has been a drag on the Democratic party.

    Jay Cost

  4. Jay,

    Thanks for the comment. Let me clarify...I think you make a fair point that I reached when I implied that you say that Obama ignored the economy. You don't say that. But I do think that you underestimate how much of the 111th Congress was dedicated to the economy, even if we don't grant Colby's point in the comment above that Obama sold health care as an economic issue. The stimulus, various UI & COBRA extenders, the banking bill, the small business bill that they just did, the various 2nd stimulus jobs bills...I think a fair reading of Obama's first two years is that it was, in fact, as much about the economy as were FDR's first two years. Even though both did other things (drinking, health care), the economy & the reaction to economic crisis was by far the biggest.

    The other key point is that I think you are underestimating the extent to which the Democrats were locked in to health care. As it was, liberals weren't going to get quite a bit of their agenda. Had Obama also delayed health care (and started off delaying climate), I really think he would have risked a major revolt. So even if putting it off might have bought a slight improvement from independents, it may have hurt him quite a bit among Dems. Moreover, it's just unclear to me that putting off health care would have bought him anything substantive on the economy, certainly not anything major -- and to the extent the economy is hurting him, it's the reality of it, not the spin, that hurts.

    On 1934...yes, unemployment was still high, but it was falling (why just private sector employment? No reason to think that distinction matters for short-term political effects). And mostly what students of elections have found is that it's economic growth, not employment, that matters, anyway.

    Last thing...yes, we'll see studies of this after the fact, and those will be interesting. OTOH, I'd urge caution on all sides. We can do a couple of things...we can compare actual election results to what structural predictors would say. However, then it's hard to know which "other" things mattered, in either direction. Second, the models that include presidential approval cannot tell us what the results would be had the president acted differently (so that if you're correct that his approval rating is much higher w/out ACA, then those models won't capture it). OTOH, models that show specific effects of the ACA vote, like the one that Seth Masket ran recently, only capture the effects on individual members, but may miss the overall electoral environment caused (in part) by what happened, rather than what didn't happen. That's not to run down any of those studies, at all, but just to say that unfortunately we should be very cautions about interpreting them wrt any particular counterfactual.

  5. What would have constituted "focusing on the economy?" A second stimulus package? That might have been slightly more popular than ACA, but probably not by much, and would have faced the same solid GOP opposition. I doubt any measures passed for the sake of "messaging" would have mattered in the face of 9% unemployment; only something that actually provided a significant number of jobs. So it would have to have been something big, and therefore not easily passable.

    Four random thoughts:

    (1) Health care reform never was all that important to middle-class swing voters, at least from what I can tell from polling data over the years. Support for covering the uninsured seems to be a mile wide and an inch thick, at least outside the Democratic base.

    (2) It's possible that ACA hurt congressional Democrats without damaging Obama. Remember the dozens of members from pro-McCain districts who needed to win voters who never backed BHO. Of course, it's possible that many were going to lose at the midterm regardless of what the president did. But a pro-ACA vote does seem to be hard to defend in more conservative areas of the country.

    (3) If Obama had pursued the more small-bore approach that Biden & Emanuel recommended in August 2009 (as opposed to abandoning the issue entirely), how much flak would he have faced from within the Democratic Party? Would he have received more Republican support on Capitol Hill? (Except for Snowe, probably not). Would he have been able to pass it more quickly, and avoided months of dreary process stories? (I suspect that summer '09 would have been the last time that Obama could have changed course on the issue without looking like he was surrendering to the GOP).

    (4) Given that opposition to ACA was strongest among older & wealthier voters (who would be least concerned about unemployment), I'm not convinced that they were motivated by BHO's "failure to focus on the economy." Remember that Rick Santelli's "tea party" remarks were motivated by a program to prevent home foreclosures.


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