Monday, April 11, 2011

Did Obama Give the Wrong Statement on Friday?

Trick question time.

As it turns out, the initial polling on the spending deal favored Barack Obama and the Democrats. It's one poll, and wording can matter a lot in these things, but suppose that it holds up. Suppose further that one of the main reasons that Obama is polling well on this is because of his conciliatory remarks on Friday night after the deal was struck, remarks which mostly infuriated liberals because Obama accepted the idea that government should cut spending during hard times. Here's the trick question: if all that is true (and again, I'm not saying it is; I don't know), then should liberals accept that it's necessary for Democratic politicians to sometimes say things they don't like in order for Democrats to actually win elections sometimes?

Why is it a trick question? Because even if you accept the premise (people approve of Obama's handling of the showdown because of the tone of his comments), the implications are all phony.

On the one hand, it's highly unlikely that the immediate fallout from this deal will have any effect at all on public opinion down the road. Had there been a shutdown, sure, it's possible (although see John Sides), but for a nonevent such as avoiding a shutdown that no one (in the general public) was worried about? No way.

On the other hand, far too much is made of the immediate importance of presidential rhetoric. Republicans are going to do what they're going to do on the debt ceiling and the FY 2012 budget regardless of what Barack Obama said Friday night. Public opinion to "government spending" in the abstract isn't going to change. Ezra Klein says that "By celebrating spending cuts, [Obama and Harry Reid have] opened the door to further austerity measures." I disagree! That door is open because a party preaching austerity won a major landslide in November.

Obama and the Democrats are perfectly able to say yea or nay to the next austerity measures that show up regardless of what they said Friday night. They're even perfectly able to reverse themselves and argue that austerity is a bad thing after all -- or, more likely that we've now had enough austerity, or that this is the wrong kind, or whatever (after all, John Boehner isn't going to surrender his new position on the debt ceiling just because he said something different last year). But there's nothing at all the Democrats can say that will stop Republicans from advocating large cuts in government spending. That door is not closing.

So it's a trick question because it really doesn't matter very much how Barack Obama framed the spending deal on Friday night. Given that, I can understand an argument that Obama should have given a statement that would have made liberal bloggers happier...but I can also understand an argument that claiming victory and, with any luck, getting a short-term approval boost is worth doing. Either way, the stakes are just very low.


  1. I'm not sure the actual liberal critique is well captured in this "opening the door" metaphor. A better account of it is probably this Jonathan Chait post:

    It's not so much "opening the door" as pursuing a bad strategy that's going to continue to have bad consequences (or, as some on the left would charge, exactly the consequences Obama actually wants, since he's basically a DLC-style centrist). Or maybe you think this is another way of stating the same critique?

  2. May I also recommend:

    Key quotes:

    As quickly as possible, the president needs to find a pivot and a political and policy footing (actually, they're one and the same) from which he can go on the offensive. It's as simple as that. Otherwise his posture and role in the unfolding debate is rearguard and reactive, energizing his enemies and demoralizing his supporters.

    .....As long as the president just focuses on dollars, he loses. He also helps misinform the public about what's actually happening. He deprives his supporters and the public at large of any real understanding of what if anything he and congressional Republicans even disagree about other than their wanting to cut a ton of spending on various programs and his wanting to cut 2/3 a ton of spending on various programs.

    You'll know he's serious when he says he won't let Republicans abolish Medicare.

    Unless, of course, he will. Which would sure be weird.

    I think the liberal critique is that demoralizing your supporters and misinforming the public does not lead to good substantive outcomes. I also think it's a really remarkable thing about Obama that he's left someone like Josh Marshall not entirely certain, even at this late date, whether he'll defend Medicare against a plan to abolish it. Of what other national Democratic leader could that be said?

  3. Power of narrative again.

    Obama may be following the bush model. Successful re-elect, but manages to lose his base during the first term.

    Any thoughts on this:

  4. Also this:


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