Friday, September 21, 2012

Representation and Change

I have one up at PP today about the question of change coming from the "inside" or the "outside." Just to add on to it a bit...

I see most of this through the lens of representation. Obama and Congressional Democrats made promises in 2008; they interpreted them; and those interpretations guided what they tried to do in office. “Promises” here means not just specific public policy choices, but also governing style, priorities, and all the rest of behavior in office. Different campaign in 2008, different promises, different interpretation, and therefore different behavior in office.

Getting back to Ezra Klein (who emphasized the limits on presidential-led change, especially from "going public") and Andrew Sprung (who emphasized the way the 2008 election did really produce results): the answer, then, is that they’re both right. No, Obama couldn't go over the heads of Congress in summer 2009 to force action on health care, or over the heads of Congress later to force action on his jobs bill. Any presidential action of that sort is at best going to produce extremely limited success in normal times, and can easily backfire.

But it's also true that elected officials in democracies generally try to keep their promises; they try to have healthy representative relationships with their constituents, which really does seem to involve taking seriously the job of making promises, interpreting them, and acting while in office with that interpretation in mind. It doesn't mean that there's an absolute one-to-one correspondence between everything a politician ever says and what they do; that's not how it seems to work. It's more that they try to be who they say they are, and that creates a situation in which they do, or attempt to do, more or less what they said they would do. Or at least some version of it.

Thinking this through turns out to be extremely difficult...we know both that politicians really do seem to take their promises seriously, but also that most actual, real-world constituents don't pay very much attention to this stuff at all, and that even for those who do it's hard to see how the interpretations of the constituency are related to the interpretations of the politician. I do have an answer to it; it has to do with party politics as the practical real-world link between politicians and constituents (well, that's some of it; it also has something to do with Act 4 of Henry V, the "little touch of Harry", but I'll save all the explanations for some other time). The shortish answer is that, yup, campaigning and electioneering -- the "outside" part of it -- matters a whole lot.

Hey, it's Friday late afternoon; I'm sure I'll get back to this some other time. As you can see, I have a lot of thoughts on this one, even if this post is a bit scattered. Sorry about that. The quick answer to how Klein and Sprung are both right, at any rate, is: representation.


  1. Obama has been the most disappointing in areas where he has the most direct control:

    Foreign Policy: Didn’t have to “surge” in Afghanistan, stay in Iraq or expand the use of drones.

    Civil Liberties: Didn’t have to sign the Patriot Act or the NDAA.

    Drug Policy: Didn’t have to expand the war on medical marijuana.

    Monetary Policy: Didn’t have to reappoint Alan Greenspan’s biggest defender.

    Transparency: Where to start?

    1. By my reading, the surge in Afghanistan was at most half about Afghanistan. Of course he's going to give the Afghanis a chance to get a national government in gear, it's only in the last few months that the blue-on-green infiltrations have effectively ended those chances.

      But the forces were there just as much for the strategic value of having local bases to decimate Al Qaida groups in places like Waziristan.

      Other than that, I share most of the other criticisms, though I look at the Senate voting 90-6 against closing the prison at Gitmo and cut the President some slack.

      But to JB's post - Obama wasn't getting more stimulus past Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh, much less Senate Republicans. And that goes even if economic recovery was all Obama worked on for the first two years. Having that 60-vote majority for even four months, it would have been Presidential malpractice of a historic scale for a Democrat not to move on getting Universal healthcare done.

      Obama also gets short-changed by commentators because he fit so much policy into the stimulus bill and the ACA. Items like student loan reform are fairly hidden inside larger bills.

    2. JS - Obama's Afghanistan policy is the Petraeus clear-hold-build strategy, which is why it required a large troop presence. The President did exactly the opposite of what Biden and others suggested, which was to leave only a bare-bones presence for special operations and intelligence gathering. Instead we doubled down on the nation building mission.

      The problem with Gitmo is that it symbolizes to the world the fact that America indefinitely detains its enemies without trial. Closing it would not have solved the underlying problem, since the detainees still haven’t been given their day in court (in the military justice system).

    3. Yes, the Obama strategy was clear-hold-build in conjunction with building up the Afghan army to take our place. (Elements of the Biden approach were then grafted on top of that.) For a while, the Petraeus approach appeared to be working, if not as rapidly as they would have liked. The problem now appears to be that the Taliban have adapted in such a way as to both evade and undermine the strategy by infiltrating the Afghan army and eliminating the presumption of its loyalty and reliability. That will require some sort of readaptation on our part, and it speaks to my comments the other day about how the outside world doesn't necessarily cooperate with the president's plans in foreign policy.

    4. And, by the way, you guys are up way too late.

    5. "That will require some sort of readaptation on our part..."


      As in, admitting that tripling our troop counts in this backward shithole was a mistake, and pulling back from that stupidity?

      As in, admitting that nation building in this backward shithole was a mistake, and pulling back from that stupidity?

    6. The Obamabots are incredibly lucky people, that their opponent Willard is equally stupid, and supports this stupid policy (as in so many other areas).

    7. Anon, whatever you do, don't waste your vote on a third party.

    8. You're telling me I must either vote with all the hard fringe leftists on this site, or with Willard the lying progressive crapweasel from Taxachusetts?

      No, thanks.

      This is going to be a status quo election at the national level, by all indications, and these 2 chumps are surest indication of that re the presidential election. Don't be swayed by the hysterical leftist shrieking to the contrary on this site.

      But change is coming, I assure you. The fiscal and economic situations are sinking steadily. Just because this is a meh status quo election doesn't change all that. As I view this, I'm only looking for the quickest route to that change, and neither of these hacks presents anything personally which might lead to a quicker route. It's the externalities that matter, given these 2.

    9. Anon,

      Sorry, I was attempting sarcasm. I agree, policy-wise I don't think it will matter who gets elected. And I'm not voting for anyone who supports the NDAA -- you have to draw a line somewhere and that's mine.

  2. Why are folks still arguing, a half-century after Richard Neustadt's heyday, about the power of a President at inside (beltway) baseball? Obama noted that the President holds surprisingly little juice at inside baseball, and Klein and Sprung kinda sorta agreed, or maybe not, but so far into the Neustadt Era, how is that even controversial?

    I tried thinking about this in my own humble way, and - not knowing whether Neustadt argues this - it does seem to me that the one legitimate power of a Presidency is the line in the sand, most saliently the veto, but generally the buck stopping at the Oval Office. Obama hasn't been great, for the reasons Couves mentioned above, as well as the extension of Bush tax cuts, and many other gripes for progressives.

    All that said, it does seem to me, subjectively, that Obama has put up somewhat more of a wall than his predecessors. Surely that's damning him with faint praise. However, in an era of a weak Presidency and myriad special interests looking to trade flattery for influence, the temptation to get rolled in exchange for puffery must at times seem overwhelming. Dubya was horrendous at that. Clinton probably wasn't that great either, indeed Bush 41 and Reagan also left a lot to be desired in that regard.

    So, in terms of not getting rolled, Obama is not great but a heck of a lot better than other salient alternatives. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

  3. One area of change that greatly intrigues me is the change in Obama.

    He came to the presidency from the Senate, and I agree that the tone of 'change,' initially, was changing the legislative process. One step in that path was letting Congress write both the stimulus and health-care legislations. Remember: during most of the Bush Administration; certainly during the years Republicans had control of both houses of Congress, much legislation came from the White House and was rubber-stamped by Congress. So that's one change. And I want to point out how much of both pieces were Republican ideas; stimulus was heavy on the tax cuts; and I don't see anything remotely resembling single-payer in the ACA.

    But Republicans showed little interest in solving problems, except their problem of a Democrat in the Oval Office.

    So with experience of the Executive under his belt, Obama used the levers at his disposal to change; there are many examples, but the re-weighting of much of federal spending under his control (fewer helicopters to look for pot in Kentucky, more on the border), executive decisions like birth control and making deportation of those under 30 a low priority.

    There's a arc of change, shaped by what's possible given the circumstances.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?