Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fundamentals and the Triumph of Avoiding Disaster

John Sides has an excellent post up called "The Fundamentals Mattered in 2012." He's not saying that the campaigns didn't matter at all, but that the context for the campaign was a playing field favoring Barack Obama; as Matthew Dickinson reminded us before the polls closed, the consensus of fundamentals-based forecasts called for a narrow Obama victory.

Absolutely true, and the place to begin. But step back a bit. By "fundamentals," we're talking about the economy, mainly, right? Or, perhaps, the economy and having an incumbent running for re-election.

That's not all, however. The prediction model that John used over at Wonkblog, and quite other models, had a third element: presidential approval rating. To be sure: to some extent, approval is yet another measure for the economy. But it isn't only that. It also picks up a large chunk of everything else that's going on.

And what I'd argue about Obama, especially in contrast to failed presidency such as George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, is that his chief clear achievement that contributed to his okay approval rating and therefore to his re-election, the main "everything else" was...avoiding disasters.

Because there were just so many potential ones in his way over the last four years. The most obvious, of course, was the free-falling economy right when he took office. Perhaps that was an opportunity, too, but there was no guarantee of that -- no guarantee that the two quarters of severe contraction that framed his inauguration would give way to positive if inadequate growth instead of continued contraction. And it's not hard at all to imagine policy outcomes that might have done that. Most observers would agree that a failed auto policy could have been catastrophic. So would have been another round of bank failures. Or a failure to pass a stimulus bill. Smart critics of the administration have mostly focused on whether the recovery act could have been better structured or larger, and those are fair questions. But with only 58 Democrats in the Senate at the time, and an almost-unified GOP determined to filibuster anything, there was no guarantee that any stimulus would pass, let alone a large one. Was the stimulus optimal? Probably not. Did it avoid disaster? Absolutely.

Continue on through the administration, through events large and small. The gulf oil spill that was horrible, but didn't get worse. Withdrawal from Iraq: yes, that did merely carry out the Bush administration retreat, but I continue to believe that, say, a McCain administration would have fought hard to stay in Iraq, and took on considerable risks in doing so. It's hard to call Afghanistan policy over the last four years a success...but again, it wasn't a disaster either. The Afghan government didn't fall; but at the same time Obama also didn't turn initial increased involvement into an ever-increasing quagmire. The Arab Spring brought a host of potential disasters; none of them, so far, have been realized. And of course the United States continued to avoid a horrific terrorism attack back at home.

After avoiding disaster in 2009, the economy was subject to all sorts of potential crises in the next three years, most notably the possibility of a European economic meltdown. There was also the possibility of a self-inflicted economic calamity in the US thanks to Tea Party brinkmanship in the House of Representatives. All told, there were several times when economists (and political pundits) thought the odds of a double-dip recession were high. But it never happened. Nor was there a government shutdown with the president held accountable. Could have happened. Just as the Affordable Care Act could have collapsed at various points along the legislative (or judicial) trail.

Don't forget, too, another kind of disaster that the Obama administration avoided: scandal.

Which, then, gets us to Sandy, a perfect symbol for the argument. Terrible hurricanes don't always end well for presidents. This one may well have helped him.

Some of all of this, of course, may have been luck. Some of the particular items here, one might argue, would not have changed Obama's approval ratings even if they had gone badly. Some, however, was almost certainly a consequence of at least baseline administration competence.

In other words, I would argue that part of the "fundamentals" going into the campaign was a Barack Obama who had managed to avoid serious self-damage over the course of his presidency. Is that a low bar? Perhaps -- but the list of self-damage in presidencies is a very long one, as anyone with memories of the George W. Bush administration can tell us.

We don't, of course, put presidents on Rushmore for avoiding shooting themselves (and the nation) in the foot. We value decisive accomplishments. Winning wars. Passing laws. And sure, positive accomplishments are good, too, and Obama had his share of those, some of which I'm discussing here in this somewhat different context. But as I look back at Obama's first term, it's the disasters that didn't happen that really stand out to me the most. And it's the ingredient into the "fundamentals" of the 2012 election cycle that, while not about the campaign, was very much about what Barack Obama did in office.


  1. I like the idea that baseline competence in one's response to potential disasters becomes a solid reason for the American public to re-elect a politician. It is a fact that there is no training for the job of the Presidency, that newly elected presidents have to hit the ground running and learn how to do the work as they go, even if they bring experienced staffers along.

    I like to think that having the interests of the poor and middle classes at heart also makes a difference.

  2. "Withdrawal from Iraq: yes, that did merely carry out the Bush administration retreat,"

    This is true, but my memory is that candidate Obama was calling for a 16 month withdrawal timeline before Bush decided it was a good idea. So when Obama became president, he was merely carrying out his own agenda.

    1. Fair point; I'd say that basically Bush reacted to the 2006 Dem landslide to take Iraq off autopilot, and then continuing pressure from Dems (and GOP 2008 candidates), plus to some extent what was happening in Iraq, made a surge/retreat) policy a logical one for the administration.

  3. Spot on. That's why I come here: for this shrewd, un-romanticized analysis. This also makes clear why a mandate will be illusive. It might be smart politics to start loudly claiming one (if nothing else in order to project confidence and a belief in one's own ideas, unlike so many other Democrats), but the reality is that victory was significantly secured by merely avoiding blatant disasters.

    1. I agree. However, I would like to point out that one of the more impressive things about Obama is that he has been willing to risk disaster in pursuit of his goals, and has managed to avoid it nevertheless. The ACA is one example. How does that play into politics? In a very complicated way, I imagine, as it resonates differently with activists, political actors, and the general populace, and as the effects of any major policy are likely to be more in terms of long-term shaping of the political environment than in short-term results. Obama is willing to risk disaster for those rather nebulous political ends (along, to be sure, with less hazy policy ends), for which he is to be admired. The fact that he takes the risk and avoids the disaster is what makes him so successful, as JB points out (and of course it works on the opposite side of the aisle as well, for instance with Walker and his battle with the unions in Wisconsin).

      One interesting question, if it is not too early, is what that might foreshadow for a second term, a period historically fraught with risk for Presidents? Will Obama be content to guard the accomplishments so far, or will he try for the history books again -- which might invite overreach of, to use one of JBs favorite bogeymen, Wilsonian proportions (although I would argue in the case of Wilson it wasn't so much overreach as terrible political strategy, which I suppose JB would argue IS overreach in a President). What will he take chances on? A fiscal bargain? Immigration? The environment? What with the fiscal cliff, the stage seems set for the first. I suppose we will see.

  4. Good analysis. It helps explain the GOP's dogged focus on Benghazi: it was the biggest and freshest "blunder" (from their perspective) they could find.

  5. I'll add that Obama's image as a sober, reasonable adult, willing to listen to the other side in good faith, probably helped too. Despite a herculean effort by the Repubs to paint him as radical alien, and a terrible economy, Obama's approval rating never fell much below the number of people who voted for him in the first place. And this in spite of the fact that it didn't take long for some liberals and moderates to lose at least little faith in him (quite wrongly, imo).

    Obama is to "presidential" (leaving policy aside) as Jackie Robinson is to second baseman, which I guess is just another way of saying that to be the First, you have work twice as hard to be twice as good. In terms of comportment, decency and rectitude, Obama is twice as good as the average president, including his two immediate predecessors. (Just imagine if Obama were as randy as Clinton or as inarticulate as W - you'd be imagining a failed candidate for Chicago alderman.)

    Don't get me wrong, being presidential may be the least important part of being president. But if you have the rest of the tools, and Obama seems have a pretty good set, it sure doesn't hurt.

  6. This is an interesting perspective, a way to look at job performance, and avoiding disaster, as you imply, can mean doing a lot right, including a lot of very difficult stuff. Obama took big political risks to avoid the disasters of losing the auto industry, losing the economic future, etc.

    I just hope the conventional wisdom doesn't overplay the demographics--that demographics was/is destiny. The voters have to come out in big numbers for these demographics to work, and for that Obama's relationship to these voters has to be important, as well as how thoroughly the Republicans scared them.

    1. On that last point: exactly. The only reason demographics have become significant is because of ideological and political-cultural polarization, which was not a pure epiphenomenon of demographics: contemporary liberalism embraces pluralism as fundamental, conservatism has consciously decided to make anti-pluralism fundamental to itself. Pundits are having a debate about demographics, when it should be about pluralism.

    2. to clarify: when it should be about the substantive merits or dangers of pluralism.

    3. I guess I would take a middle way on this: demographics aren't destiny, but they do have a profound effect on shaping the political space and determining what is, and is not, possible. In this sense, I think, Obama does owe his 2012 victory to demographics -- faced with the electorate of 1992 he does not win. Indeed, faced with the electorate of 1992, Obama is not even nominated.

      Demographics are a slow deep wave, they change slowly but have profound effect, as opposed to the swifter and more ephemeral waves such as responses to particular, time bound problems such as a particular war or a given recession. I guess the result of an election is determined when all of the relevant waves, including the wave of a particular set of campaign tactics, combine.

      It is important to point out, also, that being a wave demographics keep moving. Just because they are moving toward Democrats at the moment doesn't mean that the positive effects are permanent. The Republicans can adjust and the demographics will keep moving -- and broader cultural changes can limit the effect of demographic change. As JB pointed out several months ago, at some point the broader culture will probably simply accept Hispanics as "white" in the same way that Irish and Italians are now "white." There is no true Irish vote anymore, even though there once was and it was very important in Democratic politics and party maneuvering. Same with Italians. (The one group that will, I suppose, strongly resist being folded and assimilated that way is African-Americans, for pretty obvious, if shallow, reasons).

    4. Yes, and if hispanics are to become "white," then GOP politicians and the party's larger cultural sphere will need to in some way, on the merits, and through persuasive reasoning/actions/cultural practice, make a two-fold case: 1) convince many white Christians that hispanics' culture isn't alien (main point of leverage will likely be shared conservative aspects of Christianity) and 2) convince a significant portion of hispanics vice versa, such that they don't fear that the white Christians will turn their backs on them or secretly disdain them. At some point, someone will have to make a case for an anti-pluralism of a slightly wider scope, incorporating hispanics. And so, identity politics turns as much on ideas and culture, not simply "demographic reality." Long before Obama led these election victories, various sorts of liberals have been shaping the party to sincerely embrace the idea of a pluralism of the widest scope, not because they thought demographics were on their side, but because they thought it was right and just.

      The GOP will have to decide to concede on the ideal of cultural/ethnic/religious pluralism (just as Democrats more or less did with regard to neoliberalized welfare, for example) or reformulate their anti-pluralist attitude, jettisoning or loosening some element of it. They can choose among Christianity, whiteness, and patriachy, as far as I can tell. And demography isn't destiny: there are women who support conservative gender roles, non-believers who think a society needs to be formed around one particular religious culture, and non-whites who swoon more at the idea of joining a privileged white cultural idea than associating their ethnic difference with the minority status of others.

    5. The danger on the Democratic side is the embrace of a form of liberal determinism that implies that increasing demographic diversity always meant that cultural pluralism would become a political winner. Rather, it's become a political winner because, in no small part, liberals and man Democrats have learned to stand firmly in principle for pluralism as an ideal, even when they found themselves making partial compromises and battling groups within their own party. Democrats and liberals had to work to make the changing demographics mean what they wanted them to mean, convincing each other, convincing minority status groups that they should support each other. The demographic wave, left to its own numerical devices, could have augured dispersion just as much as pluralist unity.

    6. Apologies for all the comments. But it also occurs to me that all the demographics is destiny talk also in a weird way does a disservice to all the fine work that a generation of very conscious education and cultural-industry people have done to make the formative experiences of new generations a little less permeated with assumptions about hierarchical identity. In many parts of the world, many different types of people living together inevitably devolves into bitter conflict and *competing* forms of anti-pluralism, as viewed from all sides. It's a credit to the US right now that it has one major side in its political debates standing for pluralism.


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