Thursday, August 25, 2011

Either Side of the Same Town

Speaking of constraints on the presidency (and, yes, that is a favorite topic around here, isn't it)...Brad Plumer had a wonderful history of the gas tax today that I highly recommend, but I do have one complaint. Plumer tells how in September 1982 Ronald Reagan was strongly opposed to increases in the gas tax, but following the Democratic victories in November that year resurgent House Democrats moved to pass the increase and Reagan ran out ahead of the parade and championed it.

So that's the first telling. But by the last paragraph Plumer refers to it as "do what Ronald Reagan did and just raise the gas tax." Wait -- that's not the story at all. If Reagan had the votes -- say, if the 1982 elections bounce the other way -- surely he would have stuck with his original conviction and opposed the increase. This is exactly the point that I was making last week about George W. Bush: it's extremely tricky to attribute influence to presidents, and it's important not to assume that whatever happens must have been their accomplishment.

I don't think Plumer really thinks that Reagan increased the gas tax; he realizes it was Congress, or Democrats in Congress, or Dan Rostenkowski, who really deserves the credit or the blame. It's juts the convention we have; that's how we talk about politics, that everything the United States government did from January 1981 to January 1989 was something Ronald Reagan did -- and everything the government has done since January 2009 is something Barack Obama did. Hey, I catch myself doing it all the time, and I'm one of the biggest critics of it.


  1. It's not HOW we talk about politics, it IS politics. If you want something done by the Republican Congress link it to their revered president, Ronald Reagan, even if it wasn't really his policy. If you are good at it, and a little lucky, maybe you can force some Republicans to back it.

    Seriously, liberals are not upset with Obama's lack of accomplishments, they are upset with his lackluster politics.

  2. P.S. I mean... we know Obama has accomplished a lot.

  3. As I said yesterday, the academic "president is weaker than you think" meme has a lot of value. But is avoiding the issue with Obama. Politics is about making you take your medicine and then someone convincing you that you like it. That's what Obama is screwing up. What does that translate into? Diminished excitement by voters, which has huge impacts for downticket races.

    On the policy front, I'd say it has less impact, but everybody has learned the lesson that there is no cost to defying him.


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